The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is #BreaktheBias. The strapline asks us each to work towards a world that is free of gender bias, stereotypes and discrimination, taking a stand against inequality. This is an ambitious call to arms. The issues facing women the world over are complex, entrenched, and most importantly, intersectional. Within academia, we’re well aware of the issues facing women of colour academics. Black or brown women researchers enter this hyper competitive field knowing, or quickly realising, that everyday and institutional sexism and racism will likely mark their career throughout. Although 29% of professors were female in 2020/21 (HESA 2022), there are only approximately 35 Black women professors in the UK currently. We cannot allow the increased representation of women in academia to distract us from the woeful outcomes as well as experiences of work for multiply marginalised women.
As a sociologist of race and the child of South Asian immigrants, I sometimes occupy a relatively advantageous position. Besides often feeling like a fish out of water, I’ve been able to articulate experiences of race and sexism from the perspective of lived experience, to represent and support ethnic minority women students and colleagues, and to speak on racial inequity and institutional racism from an academic standpoint. It often seems, however, that the onus of responsibility is on women of colour to articulate the need for, as well as to facilitate, change. Institutional ‘diversity work’ now common in most universities and research bodies has, for me, brought into sharp focus the labour involved in challenging intersectional discrimination in spaces where it is often self-evident, but rarely plainly articulated.
Pearce’s (2017) critical reflections on Athena SWAN (the framework for gender equality in higher education) noted the burden that equality accreditation schemes such as Athena SWAN and the REC (the Race Equality Charter framework for race equality in higher education) place on staff in universities. Sociological / social science perspectives and research skills (Pearce 2017) are often at the centre of success of such equality projects as they bring much needed critical focus to the issues of institutional racism and sexism. In my experience particularly, the burden often falls on women of colour to drive through the work, and implement the ‘action points’ intended to benefit them. Much of this labour is also highly emotionally charged. As a sociologist of race, I always know to steel myself when diving into data – particularly narrative accounts — of racial and intersectional hatred and trauma. This a learned behaviour from the very early days of my academic career, and one that wears on morale and the capacity to mobilise over time.
The manifestations of whiteness and coloniality in White feminism are necessary to understand the relative privileging of White cisgender woman identities within academia (Rollock 2019: 4) and the siloing of issues of ‘race’ to those with racially marginalised identities. In my opinion, conversations around white feminism have rarely been centred in the burgeoning EDI (equality, diversity and inclusion) or even much of the decolonial/anticolonial work being undertaken in universities. Gachago (2018: 134) stresses the importance of women-only groups for dialoguing on race “to be able to focus on race, rather than be compromised by other power dynamics such as female/male hierarchies”. The shared need in these spaces for vulnerability and discomfort is key here (Heleta 2017), although the racial balance in most spaces — mixed or ‘single gender’ — is usually too unbalanced to preclude racialised power relations from taking hold.
Destabilising the status quo also demands wider institutional and cultural change from above – in other words, investment from those with real decision-making power. Conversations led by sociologists specifically around where critical sociology starts and ends, as something to be practiced at all levels of the institution and not just taught in our classroom or theorised in research meetings, is crucial here. Dar and Ibrahim (2019) conceptualise racialised anti-woman governance as that which silences Black women from the academy through the conferring of shame, humiliation and ‘lack’, which feeds into their symbolic and structural exclusion. Grassroots cross-ethnic solidarities and allyship can only do so much when biases and stereotypes are embedded at the decision-making level in universities and research bodies, and are thus reproduced over time to the detriment of multiply marginalised women.
#BreakingtheBias in the academy is therefore as much a responsibility for individuals and groups as it is for institutions. Taking a stand is not just achieved through individual action and commitment, but holding institutions accountable, of understanding the intersectional dimensions of gender inequality, and — importantly in an EDI-focused space — of resisting equality work that can prove counterproductive to its aims.
Dar, S. and Ibrahim, Y. (2019) The Blackened body and White governmentality: Managing the UK academy and the production of shame. Gender, Work and Organization 26(9) 1241-1254
Gachago, D. (2018) Lessons on Humility: White Women’s Racial Allyship in Academia. In Shelton S., Flynn J., Grosland T. (eds). Feminism and Intersectionality in Academia. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillian
Heleta, S. (2017) “Decolonisation of Higher Education: Dismantling Epistemic Violence and Eurocentrism in South Africa.” Transformation in Higher Education 1 (1): 1–21.
Pearce, R. (2017) Certifying Equality? Critical Reflections on Athena SWAN and equality accreditation. Coventry: Centre for the Study of Women and Gender.
Rollock, N. (2019). Staying power: the career experiences and strategies of UK Black female Professors. Project Report. London: UCU. Available at: https://research.gold.ac.uk/id/eprint/27819/
HESA (2022, February 17). Who’s working in HE? Personal characteristics. Higher Education Statistics Authority. Available at: https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/staff/working-in-he/characteristics
- This piece is part of a series of posts marking International Women’s Day. The contributors offer very personal reflections from a variety of positions, exploring themes of connection, power, marginality, solidarity and struggle. Read all the reflections on IWD:
Dr Rima Saini is a Lecturer in Sociology at Middlesex University London (MDX). She is Co-Chair of the MDX anti-racism network, and also leads on primary data collection and analysis for the MDX Race Equality Charter application. She is Co-Director of the Social Policy Research Centre and Trustee of the British Sociological Association. Her work on ethnic minority middle classness has been published in Sociology, Cultural Sociology and South Asian Diaspora. She has also written on decolonisation of the curriculum in Politics, Political Studies Review and Political Quarterly.