The chronic lack of black female professors in UK universities will be corrected only if institutions create bespoke strategies to target it, a leading black feminism scholar has argued.
Akwugo Emejulu, professor of sociology at the University of Warwick, told Times Higher Education that institutions would not solve the shortage of black female professors simply by signing up to the sector’s main diversity charters run by the Equality Challenge Unit – Athena SWAN and the Race Equality Charter.
Instead, universities must tackle inequalities with an “intersectional” approach that recognises that the challenges faced by black male and black female scholars are often very different, Professor Emejulu said.
“It is the only way forward if we are looking to address this multidimensional inequality,” Professor Emejulu said ahead of her keynote address at the ECU’s annual conference, which took place in Birmingham on 6 and 7 November.
A more targeted strategy was required to address “quite stark differences” in career progression rates for different groups of staff within the UK academy, where there are just 30 black female professors, she added.
Both Athena SWAN, which aims to support the careers of female academics, and its sister scheme, the Race Equality Charter, which was launched in 2015, are commendable initiatives, but they are also problematic for aspiring black female scholars because they reflect that universities “are working on gender and race separately”, said Professor Emejulu. She joined Warwick in October 2016 from the University of Edinburgh, where she organised the first conference on “Black Feminism, Womanism and the Politics of Women of Colour in Europe” in September 2016.
One of the specific challenges that black female academics face is that they are more likely to be on fixed-term contracts than other groups such as white scholars and even their black male peers, Professor Emejulu said.
“This matters in terms of how organisations tackle these issues of under-representation – I think they need to look beyond the issue of simply gender,” she added.
Professor Emejulu’s talk follows the publication of an ECU report last month that showed that black and minority ethnic (BME) female scientists were least likely to feel positive about their workload allocation, their promotion chances and their university’s commitment to equality.
The report, ASSET 2016: Experiences of Gender Equality in STEMM Academia and their Intersections with Ethnicity, Sexual Orientation, Disability and Age, was based on a survey of almost 5,000 UK academics in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It also found that black women were least likely to be head of a school, division or department, with just 1.1 per cent of female BME respondents in a senior position compared with 3.1 per cent of white female respondents, 6.6 per cent of male BME respondents and 7 per cent of white male respondents.
Professor Emejulu, who is from the US, said that she wanted higher education to learn from the emancipatory struggle of African American women, who had their own “radical history in the civil rights movement”, and to acknowledge that when “race, class and gender intersect [some policies] can benefit some groups while disadvantaging others”.