In equalities work, gender is privileged over race

UK research funding and sector awards should be linked to institutions’ work under the Race Equality Charter, says Kalwant Bhopal 

January 24, 2020
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A plethora of research highlights the continued pervasiveness of institutional racism in higher education institutions. A recent report published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Tackling racial harassment: universities challenged found that racial harassment for staff and students was commonplace in HEIs in England, Scotland and Wales. More worryingly, more than half of staff said they were excluded because of their race and a quarter had experienced racist name-calling, insults and jokes – all of which took place in public environments in front of colleagues.

Despite significant advances in policymaking in UK higher education, such as the equality act and initiatives to address the black and minority ethnic attainment gap, inequalities in higher education continue to persist for staff and students. Women of colour continue to be the most disadvantaged in higher education. They are less likely to occupy senior decision-making roles and be professors compared with white women. These inequalities can be located in areas of academic experience and practice, such as entry to the academic profession, access to permanent, secure employment and career progression.

The continued perpetuation and pervasiveness of institutional racism to date, has been difficult to challenge. However, the recent introduction of the Race Equality Charter (REC) has the potential to directly address institutional racism in HEIs. The REC, introduced in 2016, requires HEIs to form a self-assessment team to address racial inequality. This includes developing a four-year action plan to outline how areas of racial inequality will be addressed.

The development of the REC followed the Athena Swan Charter (ASC), which was established in 2005 to address gender inequalities in STEMM subjects. Following an announcement by the British Medical Research Council in 2011 that applicants for medical research funding would not be considered unless their school held at least a sliver ASC award, the number of applications for the award increased 400 per cent. Furthermore, the total number of ASC awards increased from 22 to 180 between 2011 and 2014.

There are currently 60 REC members and 14 award holders compared with 164 ASC members holding 815 awards between them. At present, the REC can only be awarded to a whole institution compared with the ASC which can be awarded to individual departments or faculties.

Recent evidence suggests that gender has taken precedence over race, which has been and continues to remain a secondary priority for HEIs, with white middle class women being the main beneficiaries of the ASC.

My and Holly Henderson’s recent research project exploring the impact of the ASC and the REC on equality policy in UK universities, funded by the British Academy, confirms this. In interviews and focus groups, there was a perception that gender was seen as a universal inequality, but race was not. Rather racial inequality was seen as a concern only when racial diversity already existed in the institution.

White academic spaces were seen to be the natural state of affairs in the academy and the need to focus on gender rather than race suggested a shift from addressing white gendered privilege to the perception that race was a context-specific inequality. This perspective runs the risk that gender and race inequalities become conflated in equalities work – with race always taking secondary priority.

Our research found that gender is privileged in institutional approaches to inequality.

This could be due to the chronology of the charter marks, but I suggest that the privileging of work on gender equalities over race is a response to the unsettling discomfort of addressing and confronting institutional racism – and white privilege – that continues in HEIs.

The logic of efficiency that drives HEIs to combine gender and race equalities work results in gender being privileged and taking precedence. Consequently, the racial inequalities agenda becomes conflated with more familiar discussions around gender inequalities so HEIs appear to be conducting work on redressing inequality, while in reality they continue to exclude academics of colour.

Equally there is a danger that charter marks – specifically the REC – become tick-box exercises where they appear to challenge inequality and address diversity while adhering to white normative practices and behaviours. The REC itself may be used for “gaming” purposes; as a marketing asset deployed for competitive advantage over other institutions in the sector, or within institutional narratives demonstrating a commitment to addressing social inequalities. If white identity and white privilege are not threatened, white groups are supportive of diversity and inclusion initiatives such as the REC. Thus, they can sell themselves as diverse and fair as long as their white privilege remains intact and unthreatened.

It’s time for HEIs to put their money where their mouth is. If universities are serious about addressing racial inequalities we need evidence – related to outcomes – to demonstrate this. From a policy level, the REC must be linked to research funding (like the ASC) and AdvanceHE should consider introducing department/faculty awards (like the ASC).

From an institutional level, all HEIs should become members of the REC – rather than those with senior management teams that are passionate about race equality – and provide ring fenced funding to specifically address racial inequalities in their institutions. And crucially, they must be honest and address how the white space of the academy continues to perpetuate and reinforce white gendered privilege. A failure to acknowledge racism and white privilege results in a failure to act upon it.

Kalwant Bhopal is professor of education and social justice and director of the Centre for Research in Race and Education at the University of Birmingham.

She will be speaking at the Times Higher Education Equality, Diversity and Inclusion symposium.  Join the THE event mailing list for all the latest news, exclusive offers and more. 

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