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Phenomenal Women: Portraits of UK Black Female Professors

8 March 2020

Launch of first ever exhibition to honour "invisible" academics

Award-winning author Bernardine Evaristo, poet and playwright Joan Anim-Addo and the first woman ever to be appointed head of a UK dental school, Cynthia Pine, are among 40 phenomenal women being celebrated in the first ever photographic exhibition to honour Britain's black female professors.

The exhibition, Phenomenal Women: Portraits of UK Black Female Professors, features portraits of 40 professors across a broad range of subjects including law, medicine, creative writing and sociology.

It was researched and curated by Dr Nicola Rollock, Reader in Equity & Education at Goldsmiths University of London, who has been examining the career experiences and strategies of black female professors at UK higher education establishments over the past three years.

Phenomenal Women: Portraits of UK Black Female Professors, 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. The 40 women have all been professors at some point over the past three years.

The project builds on Dr Rollock's 2019 report for UCU 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 black academic staff. Black women represent the smallest group when both race and gender and considered together. They 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. 12,795 are white males, 4,560 are white women. There are 90 black men and 35 black women.

Dr Nicola 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.'

UCU 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 portraits were taken by photographer Bill Knight OBE, who travelled across England and Wales to capture the images. They will be unveiled on Monday 9 March at law firm Paul Hastings as part of International Women's Day celebrations. They will then be open to the public from Wednesday 18 March when they go on display at London's City Hall until Tuesday 31 March.

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

*Figure excludes those whose ethnicity is not known.

Last updated: 5 March 2020