Reflections of a Black Female Academic

Reflections of a Black Female Academic

In this article I reflect on my second year as a full-time academic, focusing on achievements and promotion, my strategy for career progression and observations on how the institutional culture works against women and people of colour.

In my first post in this series written in August 2015, I shared how on starting my first full-academic role within three months of gaining my PhD, I abandoned my five-year research plan, identified new research interests and had been busy trying to stick to an ambitious publication plan. I also shared how I had sought to engage others within and beyond the academic community with my research through international conferences and guest lectures.


Twelve months on, the hard work has paid off. I applied both for pay progression and for promotion from lecturer to senior lecturer at the end of August as part of the annual pay progression and promotion scheme at Bournemouth University.

This scheme provides all staff, both academic and operational, with the opportunity to apply for extra pay progression (above the one increment annual increase) on the grounds of one year’s excellent service or three years sustained good performance. Staff can also apply for promotion to a higher grade. I was successful on both counts, and my promotion was confirmed a week after attending a four-panel interview.

At my institution, applying for promotion requires evidencing your contribution to education, research and professional practice and how you facilitate synergy between these areas, both through a cover letter and a lengthy document than runs to almost thirty pages, including every aspect of your academic role.

Some of the contributions/achievements over my two years of service that I presented in my application were:


  • Developing social justice pedagogy and applying it to a programme of curriculum diversification and enhanced teaching practice, on a consultancy basis for other HEIs.
  • Developing social justice pedagogy and applying it to my own teaching practice.
  • Developing a new degree unit based on social justice pedagogy.
  • Sharing best teaching practice at an international conference on Education and Social Justice in Hawaii, USA.
  • Gaining Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy.


  • Publishing two book chapters and two journal articles.
  • Presenting papers at international conferences in The Czech Republic, Dubai, Hawaii and New York State.
  • Being invited to join advisory editorial boards.
  • Leading collaborative research projects.
  • Being awarded an internal research grant.

Professional Practice

  • Leadership of Black British Academics, developing pro-active strategies to enhance race equality in HE and integrating this into education and research at Bournemouth University.
  • Hosting annual events (Black British Academics) designed to engage the academic and non-academic community with intersectional issues around race equality, including an event at Bournemouth University.
  • Drawing on the intellectual and cultural capital within Black British Academics to develop research to extend understanding of racial inequalities in HE.
  • Supporting events and initiatives at Bournemouth University (through Black British Academics) such as the Athena Swan Charter.

The Institutional Culture in HE and My Career Strategy

While I am obviously very pleased to have gained promotion, and feel a sense of satisfaction and fulfilment, my experiences and observations both at my current and past institutions demonstrate that the institutional culture works to the disadvantage of women and people of colour when it comes to career progression.

At my institution, there is only one female professor in my department and I am quite sure that there has never been a person of colour holding a professorship. The most senior roles are largely held by White males and very few women seem to make it beyond grade 8.

Gender aside, in general I find there to be a lack of transparency about how certain people are selected for certain roles and opportunities that are not made available to everyone. Cliques exist across education, research and professional practice which promotes exclusion to some and privilege to others, rather than promoting equality and inclusion for everyone.

When I started working at Bournemouth University I knew I would have to work much harder and have a much stronger profile and level of productivity across my academic roles to avoid being invisible, as one of only two females of colour in my department.

What I have observed over the two years is that I have thrived not because of the institutional culture at my institution, but in spite of it. I should first point out that there are several positives about the university’s approach to trying improve equality of opportunity.

I noticed very soon after I joined in 2014 that opportunities for staff development are available to everyone. Staff development is managed centrally and opportunities are offered to everyone via the staff intranet, usually on a first-come-first served basis. Because of this approach, I was able to gain my HEA Fellowship, gain a Certificate in Leadership Management and complete a Doctoral Supervision Course.

In addition, the Annual Pay and Progression Scheme is also centrally managed and Independent Pay and Promotion Panels review the applications and short-list candidates for interview.

This move towards centralisation and using independent panel members to oversee promotion was designed to break the dominance of White males, the ‘Old Boy’s Network’ where the past system of line managers recommending staff for promotion meant that the majority of such decisions fell largely to White males. It is a step in the right direction.

However, the persistence of cliques at faculty and department level mean that the roles and opportunities that contribute to meeting the criteria for promotion to a higher grade, works against the positive changes at a central level.

I have thrived within such an environment because of the external academic community where I have a strong sense of belonging, where I have worked tirelessly to create a supportive and collaborative environment for academics of colour – Black British Academics.

I can confidently say that the contributions to my institution across Education, Research and Professional Practice all involve Black British Academics to a large extent. In education, my work around social justice pedagogy started with Aisha Richards, my consultant partner and I adapted the principles we developed to my own teaching practice, which led to my developing a new degree unit and presenting our work at the Education conference.

In research, the book chapter I was invited to write for an edited volume came to me via Black British Academics (the three other publications were linked to my PhD thesis). The two research projects I am currently leading were developed through the PhD Network and Black Sister Network within Black British Academics. In terms of professional practice, it is thanks to the former head of my department, Dr Richard Scullion, that Black British Academics is recognised under professional practice and included in my workload plan (though the hours allocated are not enough).

However, it is the integration of Black British Academics into my academic role that creates the synergy between education, research and professional practice that embodies values the institution holds dear, called Fusion. It was developed to encourage academics to find a balance between teaching, research and professional practice, rather than choose one as the dominant path.

Moving Forward, Plans for the Future

I am the type of person that always has an eye on the past while living in the present and planning for the future. Thinking about the past is a reflective learning tool for me – knowledge makes us stronger. I am working very hard in the present, constantly juggling a variety of roles internally and externally.

In terms of the future, I have refined ever so slightly, the three strands of my research. Work in progress includes a journal article to write by January and two books to complete by March and July. I am currently developing two separate funding bids and working with an academic from the USA on a body of work around race, ethnicity, culture, citizenship, politics and the media. We have our eye on a conference presentation in the late autumn, we plan to co-author two journal articles and develop a series of international seminars around the topic.

In education, my external consultancy work around curriculum diversification and enhanced teaching practice continues – it is ongoing work that is part of a three-year programme. I also hope to bring this expertise to my own department and develop a model that can be used across the institution. Given the opportunity, I would also like to develop more new degree units based on social justice pedagogy.

I am delighted that my institution has signed up to the Race Equality Charter, which I will be fully supporting, both as an academic and through Black British Academics. Some positive interactions and discussions I have had across my institution suggests that there is a genuine and deep commitment to the transformation that must take place, at the highest levels within the university.

I will continue to be proactive, both in my academic role across teaching, research and professional practice and through Black British Academics in defining the issues around racial inequalities in HE and the wider society and advancing innovative strategies and solutions to address them. I do so because a commitment to social justice, equality and cultural democracy are the values that drive me – not just in my professional life but in my personal life as well.

My next application for promotion will be in 2018, when I feel my current plans and activities will have matured to the extent where I can evidence them as my progression to the next level.

While it would be nice not to have to work against barriers embedded in the institutional culture, I will continue to endeavour to dismantle them to create a smoother path for others. I will continue to articulate the existence of these barriers, both as a form of resistance, and as a strategy to help transform the institutional culture, both within and beyond my institution until it is more equitable.

This article was originally published on on 3/12/16 with the title: ‘Another year in the life of an early career researcher’ 

Dr Deborah Gabriel

Dr Gabriel is a leader in race, education and social justice as the Founder and Director of Black British Academics. Her intellectual work is interdisciplinary and broadly focused on the dynamics of race, gender and culture and the relationships between race, power, privilege, and inequality. As a consultant, she specializes in strategic approaches to equity, diversity and inclusion centred on social justice and transformation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.