Still too few black female academics hold professorships

When, many years ago, I first attended the American Educational Research Association annual meeting, I was struck and amazed by what appeared to be the sheer number of African American graduate students and professors and how this compared to the paucity of similar groups in the United Kingdom.

Several years later I learnt that black academics in the United States are more likely than their white counterparts to occupy non-tenure positions. While the concept of tenure does not exist in the UK, similar patterns of racial inequality are nonetheless evident. UK white male academics are around two and a half times more likely than their white female colleagues to be (full) professors.

There are over 10,000 British white male professors in UK universities. They comprise approximately 16% of the white male academic population. By comparison, there are just 3,420 white female professors who make up a mere 6% of white female academics.

While this arguably speaks to the ongoing challenges of gender equality within UK higher education institutions, such differences are considerably more pronounced when the data on racially minoritised groups are also taken into account.

Black academics are the least likely of the main ethnic groups to be professors. There are 65 black British male professors in the UK and, shockingly, only 25 black women professors.

To put this in context, white female and black male academics are three times more likely to be professors compared with their black female peers, while white male academics are six times more likely to occupy this role compared with their black female colleagues.

Cataloguing black women faculty’s experiences

It was in acknowledgement of this under-representation along with a desire to highlight their experiences that led colleagues in the UK and US to convene a symposium dedicated to black women faculty at this year’s American Educational Research Association meeting in Toronto, Canada.

The symposium drew on three papers: one based on the counternarratives of black women faculty at a mid-Western university; my UK study (the first of its kind in the UK) into the career trajectories of black female professors and an autobiography that took account of the author’s gendered, sexualised and racialised experiences in the academy.

Each sought to reveal the multiple ways in which the identities and experiences of black female faculty are shaped and acted upon within higher education and, crucially, highlighted how these women remain purposeful, resilient and agentic despite the barriers they face.

White women played a significant role in impacting the daily experiences of black female faculty. Far from establishing allegiances on the grounds of gender, their whiteness tended to provide them with racialised advantages that they deployed against black women and sometimes in support of their white male peers. They tended to either ignore or overlook the consequences of these actions or react emotionally when called out.

Felicity (not her real name) confided in me how it was necessary to be both strategic and vigilant during staff meetings because of the racialised and gendered power dynamics at play: “In my job right now, there is racism (...) I don’t go into a meeting blind. I know exactly what I want out of the meeting and you provide your reasoning, why and how (...). As soon as a white man opens his mouth, he can turn that meeting. You see them [white women] all flocking. You see them all flocking.

“It’s very funny to see (...) And these are the women who say maybe that they’re feminists or these are the people who [are] enlighten[ed], who are not racist. It’s unconscious. It’s within them. They can’t help it (...) you (...) see it all the time.”

When I presented these findings during a keynote address in the UK, a white female colleague suggested that, despite their best intentions and their feminist ideals, white women may have been socialised with an implicit deference and respect for white men. However, what remains of concern is that this deference operates to the disadvantage of black women.

Enid, a respondent in Rema Reynolds’s research, echoes Felicity’s comment: “In a full faculty meeting, everyone in the department there, I spoke up about how I was being silenced in meetings by one white woman. She cut me off and spit, ‘It’s not always about race.’ She’s white. She’s defending herself. She couldn’t see the privilege and the silencing in her statement. Everyone was watching us go back and forth. No one seemed bothered by her statement or the fact that here she was cutting me off yet again.”

More positively, some respondents across these two studies were able to point to examples in which a white female colleague had acted as an ally or mentor at a pivotal stage in their career, providing encouragement, references or opportunities for collaboration.

However, it was felt that broader institutional initiatives to advance gender equality tended to centre on the needs of white women and failed to take account of intersectional differences in the experiences of black women.

Intersectional approaches

This concept of intersectionality was taken up by Judy Alston as she explored questions of invisibility and authenticity in her autobiographical narrative as an ‘African-American, masculine-of-center lesbian’ member of faculty.

As with respondents in the studies by Rollock and Reynolds, Alston recognises that to be authentic and take one’s whole self to the university space – as reflected by the way she walks, dresses, talks and carries herself – can lead to problems.

In the chapter from the edited collection on which her presentation was drawn, she poses a series of important and politically insightful questions: “What is real-life reciprocity for those of us who ‘stand alone, unpopular, and sometimes reviled’? How do we make sense of or respond to questions about our ability to teach a course or whether or not the information we are imparting is correct? (Do they do this to our white colleagues?)

"How do we make sense of or respond to aggressive behaviour by white males toward us in our classes, departments and office spaces? (…) How do we respond to white colleagues who simply ‘just don’t get it’ and don’t intend to get it? Why is it that it seems to be the responsibility of those of us who are outside the circle to always do the work of educating, mending fences or acting with kindness to the degradation, dehumanisation and discrimination we often face?”

These questions deserve to be centre stage of institutional considerations about the progression and retention of black faculty and to wider debates about how universities position themselves as racially just and inclusive.

When I presented key elements of my research during the launch at the Wellcome Trust in February, a white woman raised her hand and said that she felt inspired by the research.

She asked if I, too, was inspired. I am not. I am saddened, disappointed and frustrated that, despite statements and policy documents making annual promises of equality, rhetoric continues to outweigh action and black female faculty on both sides of the Atlantic continue to be faced with barriers that affect their well-being and limit their progression and success.

Dr Nicola Rollock is associate professor in equity and education at Goldsmiths, University of London, United Kingdom. She is also the special advisor to the UK Home Affairs’ Select Committee ‘Macpherson Report: Twenty Years On’ inquiry and a member of the Wellcome Trust’s Diversity and Inclusion Steering Group. Email: n.rollock@gold.ac.uk