Most students are likely to leave university never having encountered a professor of colour, especially a woman, writes Sadiah Qureshi

I woke up bitterly cold and resentful of the interruption to my dreams. Peering out from the window, I saw winter snow falling fast enough to form a white haze in the darkness. For a few minutes, I was tempted to cancel my plans, but I forced myself to leave. An hour later, after a treacherous drive through murky and slippery country lanes, I arrived at the train station. Relieved that my train had not been cancelled due to Storm Caroline, I imagined the day ahead. Four hours later, I arrived in Cambridge ready to celebrate.

I’d braved the snow to attend a birthday party marking 20 years since the publication of Black British Feminism in 1997. Edited by Professor Heidi Safia Mirza, the collection is a foundational text. It showcased a collective British engagement with black feminism whilst helping to create new spaces for British women of colour to write about race, class and gender.

Coincidentally, I began my undergraduate studies at the University of Cambridge in the same year that Black British Feminism was published. How I wish that I had known of such work in those days. I wanted to study at Cambridge since my first visit to the city as a teenager. I fell in love with the honey stone and ancient books. Unlike so many people from state schools, I never assumed that Cambridge wasn’t for the likes of me. Rather, I wanted to go, I worked hard and I was exceptionally lucky. Yet, when I arrived, I couldn’t make sense of my profound disappointment. I imagined that being among clever students and professors would be joyous freedom. Instead, I found myself trying, and often failing, to negotiate the pitfalls of moving from the confident multiculturalism of Birmingham to the entrenched whiteness of an ancient English university.

Two decades later, I had finally found my way to the party and black feminism. Within minutes of arriving at the venue, I’d met Heidi Safia Mirza and Sara Ahmed, a self-professed Feminist Killjoy, a former Professor at Goldsmith’s before she publicly resigned in protest at the institution’s handling of sexual harassment. I could not have been happier. Later, I also met Lola Olufemi, the current Women’s Officer for the Cambridge University Students’ Union. She was recently targeted by The Telegraph in a spurious story about curriculum reform. I am impressed by the activism of students such as Olufemi and societies such as the Fly Network. When I was a student, mere survival was all I could manage. Seeing how much the current generation of students is doing to decolonise higher education is exciting as it is important, necessary and thoroughly overdue. Hearing Olufemi insist that decolonisation would continue, despite the best efforts of the press to entrench the cultural chauvinisms of some alumni, brings me hope.

The last talk was given by Professor Mirza. She reflected on the impact of the book on academia, her personal identification with political blackness and black feminism, the difficulties of being a woman of colour in academia and the ongoing importance of solidarity and collective responses to structural inequality. One of the most striking moments during her reflections was an anecdote about her inaugural lecture. As she has recently reiterated, a white male professor ‘leaned in to me at the celebration drinks and whispered bitterly in my ear, “Well, they are giving chairs to anyone for anything these days.”’ An audible gasp reverberated through the auditorium at the revelation of this man’s bitter bigotry.

Afterwards, I wanted to know more and asked Professor Mirza when she had been promoted to professor and if she had had indeed been the first woman of colour to do so, as I had heard. She confirmed that in 1998 both her and Lola Young, now a Baroness, became professors in the same year. Their appointments are often described as that of the first black woman professors in the UK. At that moment, I realised that there had never been a woman professor of colour within Britain when I began my undergraduate degree.

To put that into perspective, in 1892, Emma Ritter-Bondy was made Professor of Piano at Glasgow Athenaeum School of Music. She was the first woman professor at an institute of higher learning. In 1908, Edith Morley was finally promoted to Professor of English in 1908 at what is now the University of Reading. She was the first woman professor at a British university, a year after the rest of the (male) departmental heads were all promoted to chairs. Morley had to fight for recognition, as many women still do. The University of Reading has finally honoured her with a dedicated building after a student campaign. Forty years later after Morley’s promotion, Arthur Lewis became Britain’s first black professor at the University of Manchester.

Linger over those dates for a moment. It took 106 years from the first woman professor in a higher education institute and 90 years from the first woman university professor, for a woman of colour to achieve the same status. Within the longer history of British universities, the numbers are even more staggering. The University of Oxford has no clear date of foundation but was recognised as a university by 1231, almost two centuries after it had become a place of teaching. In the same year, the University of Cambridge was granted a Royal Charter. Six hundred and sixty-one years later a woman finally became a Professor whilst 677 years later, a woman finally became a university professor. It also took 717 years for a black professor to be appointed and 767 years for women of colour to be granted the same honour.

In 2018, it will be 110 years since Professor Morley’s promotion but only twenty years since that of Professor Mirza and Professor Young. According to the Equality Challenge Unit’s latest report, there are over 18,000 professors in British universities. Less than a quarter are women, whilst a paltry 1.7% are BME women and only 0.6% are black. With such low numbers, many universities across Britain are likely to have far too few woman professors and most students are likely to leave university never having encountered a professor of colour, especially a woman. Such numbers bear witness to endemic structural inequality within academia that will not be eradicated without sustained, proactive effort.

The labour of ‘surviving and thriving’ is the subject of a new book, Inside the Ivory Tower edited by Doctor Deborah Gabriel and Professor Shirley Anne Tate. It is important that we remember both how much has been achieved by these pioneers and how much remains to be done. After all, Professor Mirza’s promotion was consistently misused to deny that racial inequality persisted: ‘My happy face appeared on the front of the university’s website – even though every week I asked for it to be taken down, it still kept popping up! My hard-won achievements, books, lectures and awards were claimed and appropriated as a sign of the university’s diversity and, hence, success.’

I wonder how many people and institutions will mark the success of Professor Mirza and Professor Young in 2018. My guess is that it won’t be everybody, and that is nowhere near enough.

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Sadiah Qureshi is a cultural historian of race, science and empire. She is the author of Peoples on Parade: Exhibitions, Empire and Anthropology in Nineteenth-Century Britain (2011) and is currently writing a history of extinction for Allen Lane (Penguin). Tweet her @SadiahQureshi.

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3 thoughts on “Why are women of colour still so underrepresented in academia?

  1. We are celebrating the achievements of black women academics at Keele University in February through a reading of “Inside the Ivory Tower – narratives of women of colour in Higher Education”, edited by Dr Deborah Gabriel and Professor Shirley Anne Tate. Tickets are free and lunch is included. Please join us!


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