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Representation Matters: Reflections on Academia’s ‘Leaky Pipeline’

  • 17 October 2022
  • By Blessing Marandure

HEPI is running a series of blogs on the changing faces of academia in collaboration with the British Academy. This post was kindly contributed by Dr Blessing Marandure, Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Fair Outcomes Champion on the Decolonising DMU Project at De Montfort University.

‘Who did you say sent you?’ … I remember being asked this question very clearly. A year or so into the beginning of my career, and barely out of the haze of finishing up my PhD. I had entered a part of the university where I needed to identify myself, which was certainly out of bounds to students. I confidently stated to the staff member asking me that I was the module leader and went on to present my ID as requested. Unfortunately, my words didn’t seem to register with them, as I was met with a clearly puzzled face in response. It was then, after verifying that I was indeed a member of staff, that the ill-fated question was asked of me: ‘Who did you say sent you?’ Unfortunately, to them, I must not have fit their mental image of what a module leader was supposed to look like: hence, the only ‘logical’ conclusion was that I must have been running an errand for someone who did. I’ll admit that this experience stung. It made me wonder whether my colleagues went to the same lengths to prove who they were. I wondered whether it was because I looked too young or, dare I say it, young and Black?

The good news, however, is that ethnic diversity has been gradually increasing in UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). A report by Advance HE shows that students who are Asian or Black increased by 3.6 and 3.2 per cent respectively from the 2002/03 academic year to 2019/20. Similarly, academic staff from non-UK White backgrounds increased by 2.9 per cent over the same period. This increase was larger for professional and support services staff at 4.5 percent. However, the mildly good news story ends here.

What is disappointing is that despite the progress made in increasing ethnic diversity, disparities are still very much evident. The progressive drop in ethnic diversity as you move up the seniority ladder is a well-documented and persistent problem in academia. So much so that it has been dubbed the ‘leaky pipeline’. For example, evidence shows that Black, Asian and minority ethnic students at first degree level make up 26.7 per cent of the student body. This figure reduces to 18.6 per cent at research postgraduate level. Further reductions are evident in academic staff at 11.2 per cent. The ethnic disparities are worse when we look at the figures according to seniority of academic staff. Among UK nationals, the proportion of White academics in senior management roles is more than double that of Black, Asian and minority ethnic academics. 9.7 per cent of professors are of non-White ethnicity and of these, only 0.6 per cent are Black. Finally, at the very top, only 4.7 per cent of heads of institutions are from a Black, Asian and minority ethnic background.2

It is, therefore, unsurprising that students from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds report feeling that they don’t belong at university. They often cite the lack of adequate representation as a main contributing factor. It is not hard to imagine how academics, particularly those in the early stages of their career, feel. Feeling out of place in academia can really knock someone’s confidence and sense of aspiration. Achieving recognition is difficult if one is expending a lot of energy just proving they belong. There is a shared view in Black, Asian and minority ethnic circles that one must be twice as good to achieve the same recognition as their White counterparts. However, the data cited above have not done much to dispel this belief.

The persistence of the leaky pipeline shows that HEIs need to go beyond initiatives aimed at simply increasing diversity in staff. After all, the increases in ethnic diversity have not translated to change in power dynamics. In order to create universities that are truly inclusive spaces, any meaningful efforts will need to be centred around changing institutional culture. An honest reflection on structural barriers limiting the progression of Black, Asian and minoritized ethnic groups is needed. Continued engagement with the data is essential, particularly at a more granular level which avoids treating non-White staff as a homogenous group. Reflections on the intersecting identities of staff are also needed, going beyond ethnicity to consider factors such as gender, disability, and class. Maybe then the next generations of young female Black early career academics will no longer be viewed as the exceptions but the norm. 

The series so far:

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