UK universities are celebrating International Women’s Month (IWM), but Black women academics are still getting left behind, writes our contributor Dr Furaha Asani.
Very recently I attended a seminar in which Dr. Nicola Rollock presented her work showing how urgently the UK HE (Higher Education) sector needs more Black women professors. Dr. Rollock’s data, presented in a February 2019 UCU report, describes the profile, progression and experiences of 20 of the only 25 Black women professors in the UK HE sector. The in-depth report provides anonymised quotes from these professors, many of which I and my fellow Black Early Career Researchers can identify with and which I have previously written about. This seminar, and the questions and conversation that followed, brought to mind some of my experiences throughout my research career. Along with other Black women who attended, we chatted about what a difference it would make in Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) if performative allyship was reduced and if intentional recruitment of Black women academics stops being seen as ‘positive discrimination’ and rather that we too merit our spaces in the academy.
I’ve been based in UK HE for just over five years, having done my PhD and a postdoc immediately after. From personal experiences to anecdotes from friends and by keeping up-to-date with the HE climate from the perspective of Black women academics (which is very easy to do on social media), it is disheartening for me to see the amount of work that still remains to be done to achieve equity. This is compounded by the everyday microaggressions that Black women academics face. Thus I can’t help but sit, restlessly, on the fence as international women’s month is celebrated across UK HE whilst Black women academics within HEIs still face issues that go overlooked. I agree that women in the academy should be celebrated, and this is not mutually exclusive with believing that those with any kind of marginalised identity need a nuanced approach to enhancing their academic experience. Especially as we still operate in a society and academic system that mostly regards White women as default and manifests this overtly and covertly.
And indeed, many of these covert microaggressions come from well-intentioned sources. This was made very clear to me during two incidents. In the first, some Black women academics (of which I was one) sought to organise a panel discussion dissecting the issues that we and other Black women academics face in HE. We reached out to a White woman colleague in charge of our university’s international women’s month celebrations to seek a slot for our event and were basically told that the celebrations were meant to be ‘positive’. This kind of gatekeeping and tone-policing suggests that for our event to fit into the roster, it would have to be palatable to the target audience. In other words, our raw content highlighting the real issues we deal with just didn’t fit the bill. The university carried on with their celebrations, missing out on the opportunity to engage some of their very few Black women academics.
I decided, for that period of time, rather than continue to invest unpaid emotional labour in explaining why diversity is broader than gender, I would be of more use reallocating my energy to supporting any marginalised colleagues.
The second incident was when I had the opportunity of being a committee member in a departmental group that was aimed at ensuring all levels of researchers within the department (from postgrads to PIs) had a voice across the board in departmental equity initiatives. While most members in that group seemed informed and ready to effect change, it quickly became clear to me that ‘diversity’ only meant ‘gender-diversity’. On one particular occasion, when we were discussing our upcoming Athena SWAN submission, I tried introducing the need to also tackle intersectional suppressors within the department structure. Almost immediately the meeting devolved into a room of individuals talking over me. I decided, for that period of time, rather than continue to invest unpaid emotional labour in explaining why diversity is broader than gender, I would be of more use reallocating my energy to supporting any marginalised colleagues. I was the second Person of Colour to step down from that committee within weeks, leaving only White colleagues on it. In contrast to the vision and mission of said committee, to my knowledge no follow up actions were taken to ensure that PoC academics should intentionally be invited to a seat at that table.
It is truly concerning to me to have often come across the attitude that gender-based diversity and Athena SWAN initiatives encompass the whole of HE equality to do with women, and that the Race Equality Charter should ‘handle’ race. Where does that leave women and non-binary individuals who identify as Black and PoC?
I’m not advocating for the cancellation of International Women’s Month celebrations, but rather for reflection upon, and follow-up action to support and celebrate Black women academics with just as much vim as their White counterparts receive. I’m also calling upon every academic who took part in any IWM celebrations to think about inclusion and how it manifests in intersectional feminism. I would also encourage taking a closer look to identify how the voices of Black and PoC women academics are being and can further be amplified. This is imperative if IWM is more than a performance of positivity, and if indeed it is inclusive of ‘all’ women.
Furaha Asani is a researcher in the field of respiratory immunology, having first trained in Biochemistry at The University of Johannesburg. She obtained her PhD in Infection and Immunity from The University of Sheffield. Throughout her research career Furaha has also been a part-time teacher, mental health advocate and freelance writer. She mostly writes about healthcare (with a focus on mental health), higher education, and science in pop culture. Furaha also dabbles in creative writing on her blog. She always seeks to use her writing as a platform to promote equality and critical thinking, and has been involved in various initiatives to actualise these in her immediate circle of influence. Furaha loves colourful shoes and bags, collects ceramic pineapples, and at any given time owns red lipstick in at least five different shades. She can be found on Twitter @DrFuraha_Asani and you can read more of her work on Medium here.