Stopped by the unsound barrier

April 14, 2000

How many female and ethnic minority senior lecturers does your university employ? Helen Hague reports.

For female academics, the figures published today in The THES are depressingly familiar. For ethnic minority academics - especially young black women - they make particularly glum reading. The percentage of women in senior lecturer and researcher posts has nudged up just 0.8 of a percentage point to 21.9 per cent over the past year. But male and female British nationals from ethnic minorities make up just 3.4 per cent of these grades.

Figures vary dramatically among universities: Bath has 8.6 per cent of female staff in these grades and Bournemouth just 4.8 per cent, while Goldsmiths College, London, has 42.6 per cent and Derby 41.3 per cent. At Leeds Metropolitan, set in a racially diverse city, just one staff member out of 168 is recorded as non-white at senior lecturer and researcher level.

After the Macpherson and Bett inquiries, the figures highlight how ethnic minority and female academics are getting a raw deal in a sector whose staff equality track record has been found wanting by government. Factors hampering women's progression have been well chronicled - breaks to raise children, lack of confidence, old-boy networks and the spread of short-term contracts. Veronica Strang, senior lecturer in anthropology at the University of Wales, Lampeter, points to the subtle "organic" processes embedded in the culture of institutions that encourage the promotion of men while holding back women.

Strang, who has also worked at Oxford University, says some young women come into the system thinking all the battles have been won. But in the competitive scramble for jobs they find their careers advance more slowly than those of their male colleagues. "The difficulties of breaking through to senior level are exacerbated by taking on the major caring role within families," she says.

Increasingly, the demands of the research assessment exercise are being cited as unfavourable for women. Promotion is tied to publication, and female academics tend to spend more time teaching and nurturing students than do their male counterparts -leaving less time for research.

Barbara Bagilhole, senior lecturer in social policy at Loughborough, has carried out a study on gender and equal opportunities in the research application process. Bagilhole argues that women often lose out because of masculine bias in the peer review process that is used to decide whether particular grant applications should be approved or not. "Men have always used networks to advance themselves, but if women set up their own networks, they are viewed as subversive or needy," she says.

The THES talked to various black academics who feel they have been overlooked for promotion or marginalised. One black lecturer spoke of being shunned by white colleagues once he was made the head of a section after beating a white rival for the post. His colleagues have, he says, been operating a clock-watching work to rule, undermining his position. He believes race is the key factor.

Despite nearly 30 years on the payroll at an old university, one Asian lecturer feels he is seen as "not one of us" in the large, otherwise white department. He has repeatedly been knocked back for promotion because of "lack of funds" while similarly-qualified white colleagues have progressed.

These experiences are not unique says Gargi Bhattacharyya, lecturer in cultural studies at Birmingham University. She belongs to an email network for ethnic minority academics who share their experiences of "old-style racist undermining at work", such as excessive workloads, over-monitoring and limited research time.

But, she says: "People are often wary of pursuing these issues because they distrust formal mechanisms and fear they will penalise themselves by complaining."

Many black academics, disheartened by blocks to promotion, are thinking of leaving the sector. Even in a multiracial city such as Birmingham, black students do not see many black lecturers, says Bhattacharyya. This is not healthy for the sector or society. She argues that good employment practices should be one of the performance criteria by which institutions are judged. "We are large publicly-funded institutions and people expect us to be accountable," she says.

Pressure to improve higher education's race and gender record is mounting. As the government considers how to bring universities to account, these latest figures will only fuel the drive for change.


Tracey Reynolds, a young black research fellow at South Bank University, is determined to stay in academia. She is bucking the trend: most of her peer group has left the sector for better pay, security and job prospects.

After gaining a first in social sciences at Goldsmiths College, London, she went to South Bank to complete a PhD on African-Caribbean mothers in Britain. She has remained there as a research fellow.

Reynolds was hired on a six-month contract in February last year, which was then extended by a year. She is not sure what she will be doing after August.

Reynolds, 29, is aware of the downside that has encouraged colleagues to leave, but is undeterred.

"There are so few of us. As a black female lecturer, I get very positive feedback from students," she says.


Middlesex University has three black female professors: Heidi Mirza, head of the centre for racial equality; Lola Young in cultural studies; and Carol Baxter in nursing. Their presence sends a strong message.

Middlesex is way above average in the figures published today; 32.9 per cent of senior lecturing grades are female, and 8.1 per cent are non-white British nationals. The number of black British academics at Middlesex is nearly double the national average. The university, in the middle of equal opportunities year, is shaping up to start a "decade of diversity". Senior managers met on Monday to begin framing policies. Equal opportunities officer Susanna Hancock, who is blind, has organised focus groups for women and ethnic minority staff to inform policy-making.

The three black female professors insist there is no room for complacency. They acknowledge support from some white colleagues. Young believes the system is failing young, black female academics. Now seconded to the National Museum and Archive of Black History and Culture, she still supervises PhD students. Very few bright, young black women want to continue in the sector. They have, she says, seen the stresses black academics face.

Mirza, the first chair of racial equality, has a university-wide brief. She says that peer review, where "subjectivity is inherent", is the "secret place" equal opportunities policies must penetrate.

The university has pitched for Department for Education and Employment funding to spearhead a "diversity leadership" project devised by Mirza to provide training for senior and middle managers. "Strategies have to include white managers if they are to work," she says.

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