Unconscious bias training should be mandatory for all staff on university recruitment and promotion panels to help eliminate potentially racist hiring decisions, a review has said.
The radical proposal was put forward in a new Leadership Foundation for Higher Education study into the experiences of senior black and minority ethnic (BME) UK university staff, many of whom said that they had faced racism and prejudice in the workplace.
Based on interviews with 15 BME academics in leadership positions and a survey of 127 BME university leaders, the report found that several staff members believed unconscious bias was responsible for their failure to get promoted in the first instance.
“I didn't get [a promotion] because they didn’t want someone like me who is not white to be part of that senior elite,” said one Indian female academic quoted in the report, titled Black and Minority Ethnic Leaders: Support Networks and Strategies for Success in Higher Education. “I don’t represent what a professor looks like,” added the academic, saying, “If you are not white or male or middle class then it’s harder to get that promotion.”
A black female academic also interviewed explained how she had been “naive” when applying for promotion, saying that she “thought that [her] work would speak for itself, but that didn’t happen”.
She later concluded that her unsuccessful application was “not because of anything I have done maybe, but because of how people perceive black [people]”.
Another interviewee – a male academic of Pakistani origin – believed that senior managers “dislike strong ethnic minority males” who were liable to disrupt the “white, male-dominated culture in universities”.
As part of a seven-point plan to improve the career chances of BME staff, the report’s authors – Kalwant Bhopal, professor of education and social justice at the University of Southampton, and Hazel Brown, senior lecturer at the University of Winchester’s Faculty of Business, Law and Sport – suggest that unconscious bias training offered by the Equality Challenge Unit, used by several universities, should be compulsory for interview panellists.
Higher education institutions should also guarantee BME staff an interview for promotion if all selection criteria are met, while interview panels themselves should include more BME staff, the report also recommends.
A formal requirement to ensure that BME staff are represented at managerial level, possibly via the use of a quota system, should also be introduced, it adds.
Many of the interviewees also spoke highly of mentoring schemes, both formal and informal, for BME staff, and BME staff networks, leading the report to recommend more support for these initiatives.
While most interviewees spoke highly of the Athena SWAN gender equality scheme, some felt that “gender has more attention than ethnicity” – with “internal politics” now focused on promoting more women to professorial level than wider equality issues.
To that end, the report suggests that institutions should give more training to BME staff in a “formal recognition of the [specific] issues faced by BME academics".
There was not universal support for unconscious bias training in the report. One interviewee quoted believed that such “education awareness training doesn't always help” as “people perceive it as being kind of interfering, political correctness”.