Education and training – United Kingdom

‘Why is it we’re still faced with these same challenges?’ – the problem of racial inequality in academia

Professor Nicola Rollock in conversation with Alice Tofts

Professor Nicola Rollock’s work focuses on issues surrounding success and racial justice in education and the workplace. Among other publications, her ground-breaking 2019 report, ‘Staying Power: The Career Experiences and Strategies of UK Black Female Professors,’ shone a light on the experiences of Black women in higher education and the challenges and barriers they routinely face. She describes to Alice Tofts how these different issues, from underrepresentation to ‘racial battle fatigue’, persist to this day. 

What led you to develop your ground-breaking research on Black female professors in United Kingdom (UK) higher education? In 2018/19 I carried out the first empirical study looking at the career experiences and strategies of Black female professors. I wanted to understand why there were so few. It is a question that has stayed with me for quite some time. 

When I looked at the data earlier on in my career, there were just 17 Black female professors across 160 or so universities. I remember being stunned and curious about why that was. Who were these women? What was their journey through academia and what were the circumstances that led to their reaching this coveted position of professorship? I wanted to learn about them. 

It wasn’t until many years later when I revisited the data, I saw that they were still under-represented and decided to secure funding to explore this further. At that point there were just 30 Black female professors. Again, when you break it down by race and gender, Black women are least likely to become professors compared to any other group. I was keen to give a platform to these women; many were working in far-flung corners of the UK and were often the only Black woman – or indeed Black academic – in their institution. As I discovered, and similar to my own journey, they had encountered all manner of challenges en route but were still doing excellent work. I was determined to find a way of bringing them out of those dark corners, of providing a platform so that people – not just the academy but the general public – knew about them and their achievements. 

Can you talk about some of the experiences they faced in academia? During the research, the women shared examples of being undermined, of not being supported by line managers, of having their credentials questioned, of being spoken over at meetings. What was powerful was the complex and strategic ways that these women worked to navigate those barriers. The findings say something quite worrying about the sector’s commitment – not to diversity and inclusion generally, but to racial justice specifically given that these experiences were commonplace among the women I spoke with. Having said that, we are beginning to see some specific attention to the intersection of being Black and a woman or thinking in an intersectional way about policies and interventions. 

However, I would say quite emphatically that the sector still lacks a detailed and meaningful understanding of what racial justice is and how to put that into practice. It is not good at understanding antiracism as articulated through policy, and how to ensure racially minoritized staff and students have an experience that is wholly inclusive. The sector has not connected those two things. For example, it is entirely possibly for me to have a meeting with a white senior colleague who believes themself to be liberal, open-minded and inclusive, but the way in which they conduct that meeting shows them to be anything but. Racial justice means more than policy documents or fine words. It means thinking about practice and actions. For example, who gets to lead meetings, how they are conducted, who gets heard and who isn’t, what assumptions are made about certain groups and how this affects their subsequent treatment. The academy has yet to understand the significance of those types of interactions, but they matter. 

Racial justice means more than policy documents or fine words. It means thinking about practice and actions.

Professor Rollock

Do you think the institutions themselves have the capacity to change? Or do you think the drive to transform the situation will come from elsewhere? I am of an age where it is possible to see repeated patterns in the data and in the way institutions attempt to respond to the issue. However, this is not a new problem. Racism did not start in 2020 [with the murder of George Floyd]. We continue to have the same debates about race – albeit using slightly different language – but the question is: why are we still having the same conversations? Why do these challenges remain? I would argue that we need to move the debate to one about motivations – to taking a carrot-or-stick approach. If not, in 10, 15 years those just beginning their academic journey now will be faced with the same challenges and debates. 

It could mean including particular criteria for promotion to senior leadership or in performance reviews. There has to be something that goes beyond the verbal agreement or the policy commitment. There has to be something that makes individuals sit up and pay attention when they are engaging with their Black staff, when they are thinking about career opportunities for their Black staff, when they’re thinking about conducting their meetings with Black staff. Again, this is about action, about making use of the levers that bring about change. There have to be consequences or points of influence, otherwise we will not make progress on this agenda. 

Students also have a lot of power. They are consumers within the neoliberal space that is higher education. Of course, they have to dedicate their time to study, but they are also in a position to make demands about the kind of university they want and who they want teaching them. Funders are also important and can play a key role in incentivizing institutions to take racial justice more seriously. 

One of the key issues you raised in your research about Black female professors is ‘racial battle fatigue’. Can you explain what this means? Racial battle fatigue is a term introduced by the African-American scholar William A. Smith to refer to the psychological and physical stress and exhaustion experienced by racially minoritized groups as they work to navigate mainly white spaces. There is a complete disregard of this here in UK universities. Ignoring or pretending not to see race – despite the experiences of racially minoritized students, faculty and staff – continues to work to the detriment of those groups. For example, research in the United States shows that women and people of colour are more likely to be marked negatively in student assessments about their teaching, yet we make extensive use of student evaluations here in the UK without any consideration to such matters. 

In short, many universities – and of course these are issues reflected across other sectors – continue to demonstrate an understanding of race and racism that works to the disadvantage of racially minoritized staff. Let’s consider the underrepresentation of Black academics. The problem is nearly always presented as a problem of the ‘pipeline’; that is, the reason there are so few Black female professors, for example, is because there are so few coming through the system. To only focus our attention there means we miss important information and potential solutions. In 2018, I spoke to 20 of the 25 UK Black female professors. I went back to them about 18 months later to update them about the work I was involved in. I discovered that some had resigned from their posts and were between jobs, others had taken redundancy or had left the sector altogether. 

Therefore, the low number of Black female professors isn’t just a question of the numbers coming through the pipeline, it’s also about retaining them once they get there. The sector fails to pay sufficient attention to retention and the culture or environment in which Black colleagues are working. There is no point trying to encourage more into the sector if you are not going to also put effort into retaining them. 

Have there been any tangible signs of progress in the sector since your report was published? There has been an increase in the number of Black female professors in the last few years when you look at the data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency; however, their under-representation has remained the same. The disproportionality has remained the same. I am certainly aware that there have been more debates about Black women in the sector and so would suggest that my report has brought the issues facing these scholars to broader attention. However, understanding and talking about the problem is, of course, important, but it is not enough. We must see action and real change.

Photo: Professor Nicola Rollock at Phenomenal Women, a portrait exhibition commissioned and curated by Rollock profiling the UK’s Black female professors. Credit: Elliott Franks