Intersectionality is the only way to nurture academics of colour

Finding the blind spots in EDI efforts will more effectively support academics sitting at the intersection of minority identities. Here are three places to start

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University of Sheffield,University of Sussex,University of Liverpool
6 Jan 2023
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What does it mean to be BAME? The term – an acronym for black, Asian and minority ethnic in the UK – encompasses an eye-watering level of diversity. Most who fall under its amorphous umbrella sit at the sharp end of intersectional identities, of gender, race, religion, class and immigration status. Consequently, the lived experiences of people who are black, Asian or minority ethnic can bear little resemblance to one another.

Data reveal that the barriers limiting their careers can be very different. For example, undergraduate admissions data show different hurdles for black British students of Caribbean descent versus those with African heritage. Implicit bias towards Asian postdoctoral candidates in STEM differs from what black applicants experience in the same disciplines. Meanwhile, attitudes to religion vary widely among faiths.

However, the division of equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) efforts into monolithic pillars, such as that focused on BAME, averages away these different experiences. The result is a focus on shared challenges, such as racism, and a blindness to others. Here, we draw on the real experiences of BAME women in academia, highlighting the challenges that have most impacted their career progression and suggesting how departments and universities can create a truly inclusive workplace. We argue that only intersectional EDI approaches can succeed in nurturing academics of colour.

The immigrant penalty

The challenges faced by academics immigrating to UK institutions are very different from those of their British colleagues. While culture and racism may be significant, for many it is the insecurity of life within the visa system that most shapes their careers and well-being. The requirement for continuous employment can narrow job options. Or, worse, it can leave academics vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. The costs of renewing visas reach over £8,500 from arrival to naturalisation – multiplied by the number of family members who are joining the academic. This financial strain is compounded by a lack of free access to government support for health- or childcare, and the absence of familial support networks, pressures that are likely to fall disproportionately on women, who remain the primary care givers even when fully employed.

For academics from underdeveloped countries, capricious visa systems for travel result in exclusion from global academic networks or research opportunities overseas. “Getting a visa to attend a conference is a lucky draw,” said one academic from an underdeveloped country. “Either it’s rejected or delayed – usually until after the conference. In 15 years, I have only managed to attend two conferences in the US.” 

The culture penalty

BAME academics, whether they’re from overseas or the UK, are disproportionately likely to have different religious beliefs or cultural backgrounds to their white colleagues. While informality is one of the greatest characteristics of academic workplaces, it can also set traps for those whose culture it has not been built around. Informal social interactions often determine higher-stakes outcomes, such as who will be named on a research application or encouraged into a career-enhancing role. In British academia, socialising often centres around the pub. Yet for many whose religion or culture make this space uncomfortable or even hostile, this is not conducive to a productive exchange of ideas. “Due to my religious beliefs, I am hesitant to go to pubs or won’t be invited ‘out of respect’, as was once explained to me by a member of the research team,” one BAME academic recounted. “My invisibility directly led to the failure in me being named in a research grant.”

The comfort penalty

The experiences of British-born academics of colour come with their own specific type of unease. One British-born BAME academic said: “I would describe myself as a third-culture individual, raised in an amalgamation of British culture and that of my parents. It has been interesting to discover in what social spaces I’ve felt I can and can’t fit in.”

The impacts of cultural differences within the UK can be just as great as those between countries. In both contexts, there is an assumption that these differences don’t exist, and a greater awkwardness in addressing them. Where these differences and the unconscious bias they trigger aren’t acknowledged, it places a burden on those who experience it to swim against the tide while working to educate their peers tactfully at the same time. Consequently, it is hard for those who sit outside the norm to find the sense of ease that is vital, particularly for young academics, to focus on their work.

How do we centre intersectionality?

Efforts to tackle barriers for BAME staff members that focus only on race fail to accommodate the deep foundation and layered complexities of racial identity. Academics of colour experience pressure in many forms. Thus the solutions are simultaneously nuanced and will be more effective at increasing diversity across the board. We’ve outlined a short list of practical steps that can be taken to improve the careers – and more importantly the well-being – of university staff beyond the confines of the BAME categorisation:

  1. Support immigrant academics by recognising the challenges created by the visa system, particularly those from underdeveloped countries. This can be done within assessment and promotion rounds as well as simplified HR processes. Where possible, provide financial support such as affordable childcare covering realistic working hours.
  2. Rather than restricting departmental activities (such as banning pub trips or limiting meeting hours), invest in structures that foster inclusive collegiate interactions (for example, departmental coffee mornings).
  3. Foster intercultural competence for all staff through workshops and discussions involving experiences of people from diverse backgrounds. Empowering academics to acknowledge cultural differences can help gently change the conversations within departments, reducing the reliance on harmful assumptions and allowing differences to be celebrated rather than awkwardly ignored. 
  4. Provide both mentoring and informal support (such as buddies) for new minoritised academics to encourage their progression and development opportunities and to help them navigate the unique challenges they face.
  5. Create an inclusive career development framework acknowledging intersectional identities to monitor and support the career progression of marginalised academics. The annual review process would be an ideal forum to explore what barriers to career progression exist and co-create personalised action plans to address them.

Wajeeha Aziz is senior lecturer in medical and clinical education at Brighton and Sussex Medical School at the University of Sussex.

Raheela Awais is a lecturer in the School of Life Sciences at the University of Liverpool.

Melody Obeng is a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Biosciences at the University of Sheffield.

Ellie Harrison is an independent research fellow in the School of Biosciences at the University of Sheffield.

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