British Science Week is a good time to try to find out who the black leaders of British science in 2016 are. It is also the second anniversary of the groundbreaking meeting at University College London asking the question: “Why isn’t my professor black?”
There are 8,300 professors of science, engineering and technology (SET) in the UK, and only 35 are black; a closer look will show that the majority of black professors did not go to school in the UK.
I recently spoke to a white professor colleague about the key figures involved in shaping his career; he was able to quickly reel off a list of individuals who had facilitated, mentored or sponsored his career. His experience as an aspiring scientist was positive; the main challenges were about the science and getting funding. As a reader, the key individuals in my career have, by contrast, been those who have either blocked or delayed my progress. The positive figures tended to be those who enabled me to recover from negative experiences. Much more of my time was spent defending myself against those who found it difficult to accept that I could be a good scientist. My experiences may not be typical of all black scientists, but the numbers mentioned above suggest that my experience is quite widespread.
A closer look at how you become a professor may provide some further clarification. To be considered for promotion to professor, you must be “suitably qualified”, normally by authoring a large number of “high-quality” publications, undertaking PhD supervisions and generating external funding. The next step is to gain support from your institution and then to find at least four referees who will support your application and certify that you are a leader in your field with an international reputation. To gain such support requires building large internal and external networks. For many reasons, not enough black academics work in institutions where such reputations and networks are made, significantly reducing the possibility of being promoted to professor.
I also spoke to a female professor, and her experiences were closer to mine. However, there are important differences, and this is reflected in the fact that the number of female professors has doubled in recent years. One explanation is the divergent responses to sexism and racism in modern society and in academia. It is far easier in academia to gain acceptance that sexism is widespread, and the historically lower numbers of female professors can be attributed to various structural obstacles amounting to “institutional” sexism. Consequently, there is less resistance when taking effective actions including initiatives such as Athena Swan. By contrast, it has been far more difficult to gain acceptance that racism or even unconscious bias exists in academia.
The progress of professors from other minority ethnic groups also highlights what can be done where there is a strategic or economic driver. As higher education institutions scramble for more international students, they have come to realise the value of having professors, either home-grown or imported, from certain ethnic backgrounds. The result is that today professors make up roughly one in 10 Asian academic staff – the same ratio as white professors – compared with over one in 30 for black staff.
There is no doubt that having black leaders and professors in SET subjects is essential if we want to encourage more black students to study science at school and university, and then to go into SET careers. The examples of women and other minority ethnic professors suggest that major change comes only when there are wider social, political and economic drivers ensuring that change takes place. Until then, we should be celebrating the few black leaders of British science and ensuring that their work is known to the widest possible audience.
Winston Morgan is reader in toxicology and clinical biochemistry at the University of East London. British Science Week runs until 20 March.