Interview with Amina Memon

We talk to the psychology professor about diversity in higher education, academics’ civic engagement, and mindfulness

June 30, 2016
Amina Memon, Royal Holloway, University of London, Leadership Academy for Asian Women

Amina Memon is professor of psychology at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is a fellow of the British Psychological Society, the Association for Psychological Science and the Royal Society of Arts. She is the founder of the Leadership Academy for Asian Women. In May, she won the professional category of the 2016 Asian Women of Achievement Awards. The awards, in their 17th year, were set up to champion the “unsung Asian heroines of British life”. 

Where were you born?
London, within the sound of the Bow Bells.

How has this shaped you?
I was born in the East End in the 1960s to immigrants who arrived in London in the 1950s to make their fortune. I grew up in an environment where I saw my parents struggle to make ends meet but saw that they worked their socks off to make a success of their lives. That was what inspired me most. However, what really shaped me was going to North East London Polytechnic [now the University of East London] to do my degree. I wasn’t allowed to leave home so this was a last-minute decision to avoid an arranged marriage. The psychology department there turned out to be superb. My tutors soon recognised that I came from a vulnerable background and kind of adopted me. It was their mission to make sure that I didn’t drop out and get married off. The choices I made at the age of 18 made me who I am today.

What did it mean to you to win this award?
It was recognition of my achievement over the past 35 years – from my PhD to my current post as professor of psychology. It’s also a tribute to all the people in education who supported me throughout my career. 

Some people might not conceive academics to be doing as ‘useful’ a job as doctors or lawyers. What message does your achievement send in terms of the academic profession within society?
Yes, there is a myth that academics just bury their heads in books and spend all their time writing and promoting their subject. That’s just a small part of our job. We have been entrusted with educating the next generation, we are in a position to inspire our young people and create the leaders of the future. Of course the doctors and lawyers are there to protect and fix us when we break [something] or get into difficulty. However, it’s what we as academics do that makes history and shapes society.

You have done work in the voluntary sector. Do you think that it is important for academics to have a civic side to their work, regardless of seniority?
Absolutely. It is our duty to contribute to society, however small. You don’t have to be senior to do that. Junior academics have a lot to gain from volunteering to serve on an advisory board or the panel of a non-governmental organisation for instance. 

We continue to see reports on a lack of representation of both women and black and minority ethnic women at senior levels of the sector. How serious is this problem, and how far away is the UK sector from achieving parity?
We are far away from achieving parity. We are way behind the US and some European countries. I have also been surprised at how little understanding there is in higher education of the barriers facing ethnic minority women. I am hoping that the AWA award will help me address this but I am surprised at how few of my colleagues have asked me what this award is about. 

What has changed most in higher education in the past 10 years?
The emphasis on research outputs, sometimes at the expense of valuing high-quality teaching contributions.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Go for a career in journalism. Do an MBA mid-career.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
The best aspects are my personal adviser sessions with my students; I love mentoring them. The worst thing is the pressure to publish in certain journals that are rated highly by the research excellence framework but that don’t reach the audiences that I want my work to reach.

What’s your biggest regret?
Not having had the chance to say goodbye to my husband who died suddenly five years ago.

What advice do you give to your students?
Use me, I am here for you.

What’s your most memorable moment at university?
When my personal adviser told me to tell my parents that I was a lesbian to stop them marrying me off. I roared with laughter.

What is the biggest misconception about your field of study?
That it is not rich in theory, it is not blue-skies research and it won’t get into the best journals.

What project would you undertake if money was no issue?
I’d create an intergenerational hub/day centre where the very young and the very old could engage in learning side by side. I’d love to create something like this to inspire and provide a safe haven for our seniors to pass on their wisdom to the young. It would also tackle the problem of social isolation that afflicts seniors in many sectors of our society.

If you were the UK higher education minister for a day, what policy would you introduce?
All academics should receive training in mindfulness meditation. I really don’t think we are mindful enough and it could have enormous benefits for the way we work and relate to others.


Andy Lockett has been appointed dean of Warwick Business School. Professor Lockett, who is currently professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the school, will take up his role at the beginning of August. Before joining Warwick, Professor Lockett held numerous positions at the University of Nottingham, including associate dean and deputy dean. “Since joining WBS, I have been privileged to work alongside an amazingly talented group of academics and administrative staff across WBS, the wider university and beyond. I see my role as one of channelling the collective endeavour of the staff, students and alumni to put WBS at the forefront of business thinking at a regional, national and global level. I’m really excited by the prospect of what we can all achieve together.”

Jonathan Seville, executive dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences at the University of Surrey, has taken up his new position as the president of the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE). In his presidential term, he will lead a thorough review of the institution’s governance and strategic direction. Taking up his position in May, Professor Seville said: “Major shocks such as the fall in the oil price make the discipline of chemical engineering more – not less – relevant to society, since chemical engineers have exactly the skills that are needed to achieve sustainable ways of living. But we have to demonstrate those skills in new ways and in new applications,” he added.

Miranda Thomas has taken up her position as head of external affairs at the UK Higher Education International Unit. Ms Thomas is responsible for development and delivery of the unit’s communications strategy.

Chris Main, professor of clinical psychology at Keele University, has been appointed an honorary member of the Council of the International Association for the Study of Pain.

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