What we can learn from Black women academics in the UK

As a Black female lecturer, Shelley McLetchie-Holder outlines lessons she has drawn from other Black women academics working in the UK and explains how institutions can best support these staff

Shelley McLetchie-Holder 's avatar
King’s College London
12 Jun 2023
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A Black woman lecturer speaks to a university class

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As a Black Caribbean woman lecturer in the UK, the experiences of other Black women colleagues have always been of interest to me. Much of the literature to date, which is largely US-based, is compelling but sadly affirms the hurdles and barriers faced by Black women in academia. In particular, it documents their feelings of isolation and marginalisation, brought about by constant challenges to their status, authority and scholarship. It is acknowledged that as race and gender intersect, Black women are “double outsiders” who are subjected to both racism and sexism.

A 2019 report identified a mere 27 Black female professors in the UK. In my own faculty, there are no Black women academics in senior leadership positions. Keen to learn about the experiences of Black women academics in my faculty, I spoke at length with three high-achieving colleagues as part of my ongoing research. Reassuringly, I found authentic, confident academics who were juggling a multitude of important roles, leading faculty innovations and discussing their jobs with pride and fulfilment. These largely positive experiences of my colleagues must of course be set against the vast evidence of oppression and marginalisation of Black women in academia over the last decade. However, I asked these women how they seemed to be thriving in a predominantly white space.

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Invest in yourself

It has been argued that Black women need greater agency than their white counterparts in order to succeed, and it was clear that my colleagues were taking very active roles in their career progression. The women explained how they had invested in themselves in the following ways:

Get a mentor: They talked about the importance of their valued “mentors”, “allies”, “confidants” and “rocks”. These mentors were used for counsel, guidance and support with career progression. Not all had Black or women mentors and, although this brought a different dynamic, what really mattered was the quality of the relationship.

Engage a support network: Colleagues stressed the importance of having supportive friends and family. These nurturing relationships encouraged self-belief in their ability to progress in their careers and fostered a resilience when things got tough.

Stand out: These academics were in the process of considering or completing doctoral studies, publishing their research and creating innovation at work. They had also been offered and accepted high-profile roles, which they carried out with pride.

The experiences shared by these women are somewhat similar to mine. I too consider self-investment and a supportive network as fundamental in forging ahead. They have been instrumental to seizing and fulfilling the opportunities granted to me. Undertaking my doctorate has allowed me the space to work creatively.

While it was wonderful to see how these individual women demonstrated their brilliance, they were all aware of the need to be focused and driven, and mindful of potential barriers ahead. Our faculty is dominated by women and thus less likely to suffer from the misogyny that occurs in many academic settings. Still, well-meaning attempts to promote women in academia without considering intersectionality might prioritise white women academics, who already have access to privileges, at the expense of more oppressed groups. Black women can feel that they are held to a higher standard than other women, with their expertise frequently questioned, leaving them demoralised and disengaged. However, under the strategic vision of most UK universities and the equality, diversity and inclusion agenda, faculties have a key responsibility to support their Black women academics.

So how can academic departments in the UK best support Black women?

Provide an empowering space to thrive: As they might not have access to informal career-enhancing networks, departments must ensure that Black women academics have an empowering space to grow. This means building a safe community of trusted mentors and senior allies where issues can be addressed, and progress and development reflected upon. Opportunities to showcase achievements across teaching and research should be provided to invigorate other Black women academics.

Appreciate unique perspectives: Black women academics bring a unique perspective to higher education. Departments must ensure they are given a voice to share their experiences and contribute ideas to high-level departmental discussions. Black women offer intersectional insight to the discourse around the diverse student body. This can lead to the creation of new modules or initiatives from which faculties will benefit.

Be transparent in opportunities to progress: It is important that opportunities for career advancement and promotion are explicit and transparent to Black women academics. Consider how best to draw on their strengths and expertise to achieve promotion through bespoke training opportunities, support for doctoral studies and regular, tailored development reviews.

Engage Black women students: Black students at university face racism, micro-aggressions, poor support and a lack of role models. Black students as well as Black women academics have much to bring to the teaching and learning environment, and a deficit lens must be avoided. Celebrating the excellence demonstrated by our Black women academics will make their achievements visible to all and hopefully inspire Black students to consider academia as a possible career path.

Shelley McLetchie-Holder is a lecturer in nursing education and head of department for child and family health at King’s College London. 

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