Source: Neil Spence
We often talk about the glass ceiling for women in the workplace, but for black women we are faced with a concrete ceiling
Sociologist Tracey Reynolds began her academic career at London South Bank University after completing her PhD at the University of Greenwich. After nearly two decades at LSBU, where she was most recently acting head of the Weeks Centre for Social and Policy Research, she has returned to Greenwich to take up a chair in social sciences. As a black, female professor, she is part of a tiny cohort. There are fewer than 100 black professors in the UK, and fewer than 20 of those are women.
Where and when were you born?
Tooting in South London in the early 1970s.
How has this shaped you?
Tooting was working-class but a very multicultural area, and so from a young age I mixed with people from many different ethnicities and cultural groups. It gave me a natural curiosity about understanding differences between people and embracing these differences.
As a black, female professor you are in a particularly distinct minority within the academy. Do you hope to use your position to inspire others from these groups?
Yes, by mentoring and offering support to other black female scholars coming up through the academy, which I do a lot of and am happy to do. But also, on a more obvious note, by just being visible so that these female scholars can see that you don’t have to be white, male and from a middle-class background to become a professor.
Why are there so few black and female professors in the UK, and what needs to be done?
We often talk about the glass ceiling for women in the workplace, but for black women we are faced with the concrete ceiling, and our day-to-day work can become a test of resilience against the oftentimes subtle discrimination and unspoken prejudices we encounter within the academy. Black female scholars disproportionately end up on short-term teaching and research contracts, overloaded with administrative duties with fewer promotion opportunities or routes to develop their research careers. Many of the black female peers I started out with when doing my PhD have left the academy out of sheer frustration that, despite having a proven track record, they are still unable to secure a full-time permanent contract, much less career progression and enhancement. The first step is that university institutions need to acknowledge that there is a problem, and at the very senior executive level there needs to be a clear commitment, through policy and action, to tackling the issue rather than shying away from it.
Adopting diversity quotas for senior academic position shortlists has been mooted. Is this a solution, or does it create the perception that successful female and minority scholars have not earned their positions on merit?
From my experiences in higher education, I think the perception exists anyway among some scholars, so choosing to introduce quotas or not will not change the perception of those who are hard-wired to regard female and minority scholars as intellectually inferior to themselves. I’m not sure if quotas are the answer, but I do believe higher education institutions need to be more responsive, innovative and visionary in more proactively supporting and championing female and minority scholars to reach these senior levels within the academy.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
To trust in myself, have confidence in myself and to believe that I’m just as good as anyone else. Also to stop and enjoy each moment rather than being in a race to complete the next rung of the career ladder.
What kind of undergraduate were you?
Hard working, conscientious but lacking in confidence. Feeling that I did not quite fit in and belong at university.
What was your most memorable moment at university?
Getting a first-class degree was great, and I remember my parents being so proud of me on the podium at the graduation ceremony, as I was the first family member ever to go to university.
What keeps you awake at night?
I am a single mum with two young children so worrying who will look after them if anything happens to me keeps me awake.
Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
For me it has always been and always will be my mum, who died 10 years ago. She instilled in me a sense of pride about being black and I think that has built my resilience in my career and made me the person I am today.
If you had the chance to become the UK universities minister for a day, what policy would you immediately introduce to the higher education sector?
Greater dispersal of research funding and resources across the university sector [rather] than concentrated in an elite few Oxbridge and Russell Group universities. Post-1992 universities such as Greenwich have been excelling for years at delivering applied social research that engages with local communities and economies in socially deprived neighbourhoods.