Cracking the Concrete Ceiling: what we have learned so far

Roof of the Pantheon in Rome with sunlight streaming through

There has been increasing attention paid to the “glass ceiling” effect for women’s advancement in the workplace in recent times, especially to the gender pay gap. Yet just as significantly, the stark truth is that severe racial inequality in British universities persists, leading to talk of a “concrete ceiling” for black and minority ethnic people (BME) in higher education.

The Leadership Foundation has been trying to tackle this problem head-on. For some years the LF has run a leadership programme (“Diversifying Leadership”) designed to support and help people of BME backgrounds to obtain more senior leadership positions.

The LF recently commissioned a study to explore the impact of this programme. This is being co-led by Professor Jan Fook and Dr Terri Kim (University of East London), supported by Amanda Aldercotte and Kevin Guyan (Equality Challenge Unit) and Professor Udy Archibong (Bradford University). The study aims to provide a better understanding of how BME people experience working and gaining leadership in British higher education, and also how their own social and institutional contexts play a part. Several key messages are emerging from this about the experiences of BME staff.

“Hidden” cultures

First, participation in the Diversifying Leadership (DL) programme was experienced overwhelmingly as positive, particularly from the point of view of establishing networks for further support, and creating an environment where participants felt they could identify with the experiences of others. This is to be expected, but speaks volumes for the importance of networking and providing forums where BME people feel they have a more collective voice. However there are also some clear issues which need further attention, especially cultural differences within the BME group itself in their understanding of racial equality issues. Another is how “hidden” cultures of discrimination continue to play a part in hindering BME leadership.

Of course, the value of networking and providing a forum for a more collective BME voice, is not a surprise, and so much of what continues to emerge about the experiences of BME staff in universities echoes much of what has already been said. There are of course micro aggressions and what some people term “institutional racism”. However it is also important to remember that the whole category of “BME” might be seen as a largely constructed category, perhaps constructed by white populations. This can homogenise and in some cases dismiss the vast cultural and political differences which might exist within the broad racial and ethnic minority population.

Our study so far suggests that understanding such differences might make for better preparation in tackling the racial inequality that exists in higher education leadership. Some of these differences revolve around different ways of identifying discriminatory behaviour, as a result of different cultural backgrounds. For example, British-born BME people may have a different identity with regard to racism, than do people who have been born in countries where they were not from an ethnic or racial minority. Those who have not been raised to see themselves as being from a minority group, and have not experienced racism before coming to the UK, may not easily identify with the experience of the British-born counterparts.

How useful is BME labelling?

A further example of differences occurs in relation to how analyses of the politics involved in race relations within universities is perceived. Staff with academic backgrounds in disciplines like sociology, or other social sciences, seemed to be more critically aware of BME policy and racial equality issues in the UK HE sector, often better than those from, for example, natural science disciplinary backgrounds. Among the DL participants, some of the Chinese and East Asian academics admitted that they had not previously been aware of the BME policy-driven equality and diversity agenda. This new awareness was something that they then struggled to integrate into how they managed their own relations at work.

One of the Chinese participants also expressed anxiety over the BME labelling, which he felt might actually be disadvantageous for his career and might be inclined to make colleagues view him as a a member of a “victimised and discriminated against” minority, which he very stridently believed was not how he saw himself in UK HE. These types of experiences indicate that it may be important to include a wide range of perspectives on both how to interpret possibly discriminating behaviour, and also how this is addressed.

Another clear theme, which although not new, is something which most definitely needs to be addressed. Speaking from an “outsider” perspective, BME staff noted that routes to progression were not often clear, or that key posts were filled in a “back door” kind of way, showing a preference for people from white backgrounds.The role of the “hidden culture” involved in being a successful employee in higher education is emerging unequivocally as a major hindrance for those who are locked out of this culture. This points to the need for institutions to be responsible for ensuring pathways to leadership are transparent and accessible to those categorised as being from different cultural backgrounds. Therefore it also important that the tacit knowledge needed to access them, and be successful, is articulated and shared, and also monitored for relevance and inclusion.

Our study therefore underlines the need to address some of the more nuanced cultural and systemic ways of supporting BME leadership in higher education, BUT this also needs to be done through working together with institutional policies, to help crack the concrete ceiling.

Jan Fook, Terri Kim, Amanda Aldercotte, Kevin Guyan and Udy Archibong

Jan Fook is running a workshop at this year’s BME Leadership Summit on May 16. Find out more about the event.

The Leadership Foundation is currently funding a project to explore ways of making university boards more diverse.

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