Portraits celebrate UK’s black female professors

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Two academics working at Goldsmiths are among 40 phenomenal women celebrated in the first ever photographic exhibition to honour Britain's black female professors.

Professor Claudia Bernard and Professor Joan Anim-Addo © Bill Knight

Poet and playwright Professor Joan Anim-Addo and one of the country’s leading social work academics, Professor Claudia Bernard, feature in Phenomenal Women: Portraits of UK Black Female Professors. 

The exhibition is on display and open to the public at London’s City Hall from 18 – 31 March.

The Phenomenal Women exhibition was researched and curated by Dr Nicola Rollock, Reader in Equity and Education at Goldsmiths. Dr Rollock has been examining the career experiences and strategies of black female professors at UK higher education establishments over the past three years.

Photographer Bill Knight OBE travelled across England and Wales to capture the images of professors across a broad range of subjects including law, medicine, creative writing and sociology. They were first unveiled on 9 March at law firm Paul Hastings as part of International Women’s Day.

The exhibition aims to highlight the presence and excellence of all the women included and provide a platform for debate about what it takes to reach this highest level of academic scholarship.

Professor Claudia Bernard is Professor of Social Work and Head of Postgraduate Research in the Department of Social, Therapeutic and Community Studies at Goldsmiths. Professor Joan Anim-Addo is Professor of Caribbean Literature and Culture, founder of the Centre for Caribbean and Diaspora Studies at Goldsmiths and co-convenor of the MA Black British Writing.

The exhibition also features Professor Heidi Safia Mirza who is currently Visiting Professor of Race, Faith and Culture in the Department of Sociology at Goldsmiths and founder of the pioneering MA in Race, Gender and Social Justice. She studied for a PhD at Goldsmiths, with her thesis becoming her first book, Young, Female and Black (1992). Also included are Professor Bernardine Evaristo, joint-winner of the 2019 Booker Prize, Professor of Creative Writing at Brunel University London, and a Goldsmiths alumnus, earning her PhD in Creative Writing.

The project builds on Dr Rollock’s 2019 research which showed the barriers faced by black women as they worked to navigate their way through higher education and the strategies they used to help them reach professorship. Fewer than 1% of professors in the UK are black despite increases in overall levels of academic staff. Black women are three times less likely to be professors than their white female counterparts and half as likely as black men.

There are 19,285 professors in UK universities in total according to a 2019 report by AdvanceHE (this figure excludes professors whose ethnicity is not known). 12,795 are white males, 4,560 are white women. There are 90 black men and 35 black women.

Dr Rollock said: “I want Phenomenal Women: Portraits of UK Black Female Professors, to challenge perceptions of what a professor looks like, to highlight the intersectionality of race and gender and to showcase the achievements of this under-represented group of academics. As a relatively invisible and unknown entity, these women stand out in their respective fields.

“The sector is failing black women and needs to be purposeful and explicit in its efforts to retain and promote them.”

University and College Union general secretary Jo Grady said: “The fact that we can exhibit portraits of the UK’s black female professors demonstrates just how few of them there actually are. This project shines an important light on a severely under-represented group of staff and should challenge people’s perceptions of what a professor looks like. 

“Our research shows that far too many black staff in universities face significant barriers to promotion, as well as an insidious culture of bullying and stereotyping. We have to transform a system that black women say is riddled with unfairness and bias. That starts with an overhaul of promotion structures to ensure genuine equality of opportunity.”

The Phenomenal Women exhibition is sponsored by Paul Hastings, UCU, Pearn Kandola, Wellcome Trust and Baker McKenzie and supported by the Mayor of London, Runnymede, and Goldsmiths, University of London.

The digital communications team at Goldsmiths has produced a permanent website hosting the Phenomenal Women portraits and biographies: www.phenomenal-women.com