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.

Diversifying Leadership alumnus: ‘I realised I’m a strong asset’

Lawrence Lartey, student employability and progression practitioner at University of the Arts London, took part in Diversifying Leadership in 2016. Diversifying Leadership is the Leadership Foundation’s programme for BME early career academic and professional services staff. Two years after finishing the programme, Lawrence reflects on his experience.

What made you apply to be a participant on the Diversifying Leadership programme?
Initially I applied because I felt I was stagnant at my place of work, and I could not see ways that I could further my career. I applied as I knew I would be around other academics in similar situations. I wanted to pause, learn and explore ways to help myself develop as a person, and also look at strategies to develop my career.

What were your key leadership takeaways?
There were so many takeaways. One that was key for me was learning that the way I lead is authentic and credible in an academic setting. I embody everything I do naturally and channel it through my work. I completed the course feeling empowered and more confident than when I started.

One of the unique elements of the programme is that participants work with a sponsor. How did this relationship help you increase your influence in your institution?
My sponsor was incredible, he really invested in me. He took a real interest in my progression and coached me into demonstrating my value to my employers. What I mean by this is that I was doing such important and innovative work, he helped me see how the work had tangible research potential and how I could publicise the project in order to make the right people aware.

Many participants speak about a “lightbulb moment” on the programme when they have a real sense of clarity about their strategy for progression. What was yours?
There were two really. The first was when I decided a PhD was not my priority, even though 70% of the participants on the course with me had or were studying for one. Deciding against a PhD really freed-up my thinking. My second lightbulb moment was realising that I’m a qualified academic, engaged in the creative industries with a thesis of mine having been turned into a BBC documentary. I realised I’m a strong asset, the right people at the institution need to know this.  

How would you respond to those who criticise programmes like Diversifying Leadership because they are based on a deficit model?
How you measure the impact of any programme is dependent on one’s definition of success. How do you quantify success? There is a real issue around representation and leadership in higher education. As a result of the programme I’m now in a contracted position in my establishment. There has been significant distance travelled, and I’ve been leading high profile projects. My response to those who criticise the programme is that, there are representation issues in higher education (gender race etc) and Diversifying Leadership is making attempts to address the issues, and sometimes focussing on the issue and unpicking it provides a resolution.

Tell us about your current role
My role at University of the Arts London as a student employability and progression practitioner really allows me to use my industry contacts to ensure our students are equipped to progress into the creative sector. I also explore ways to open up exchange opportunities for students to study in other countries via projects such as the NYLON exchange project (in partnership with entrepreneur and music producer Jay Z’s Shawn Carter Foundation).

What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working with Jay Z and his Shawn Carter Foundation on another international exchange taking place in summer 2018. The project is going from strength to strength with some of his scholars spending part of their semester at University of Arts London colleges. I’m also working on a great initiative with global creative agency Exposure, looking at how we prepare the next generation of creative leaders. For the last year and a half, I’ve also been developing a cultural leadership programme with the Obama Foundation, we’re looking to enrol the first cohort of students in 2018, on a bespoke creative sector leadership programme. The programme will take place in Boston and London.


Diversifying Leadership

The Diversifying Leadership programme is designed to support early career academics and professional services staff  from black and minority ethnic backgrounds who are about to take their first steps into a leadership role.

Limited spaces remain on Diversifying Leadership 7 which runs from April-June 2018. Find out more.

Equality and Diversity

Diversifying Leadership is part of our Equality and Diversity programme. Join us at our BME Summit on May 16find out more hereLearn more about our other diversity programmes by following this link. 

The Longitudinal Study 

The Diversifying Leadership programme is the subject of a longitudinal study, “Cracking the ‘concrete ceiling'”, which is due for publication later this year. Find out more.