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Equality for UCU staff

12 February 2024

Dear colleagues, 

Following UCU's 2022 Equality Pay Audit which revealed a gender and ethnicity pay gap, as well as underrepresentation of Black, women and disabled staff in higher grades, UCU commissioned E-quality to undertake a listening circles project with Black staff in order to capture their experiences as UCU employees. 

I provided an initial oral report on the findings at the all-staff meeting in December, and am now writing to provide fuller details of the key themes identified by the project, as well as the actions we plan to take in order to begin to address the concerns raised.  

The key findings are summarised below. Please note that these findings are confidential to UCU and should not be shared with anyone other than UCU employees. The powerpoint slides presented by E-quality have been provided to the staff unions for information, and can also email me directly if you would like a copy.  

Many of the findings make for difficult reading. Black staff reported:   

  • Feeling that they have to work harder and longer to prove themselves 

  • There is a gap between rhetoric and reality, with approaches advocated to members not practiced internally 

  • Feeling undervalued and disrespected, with some reporting being actively discouraged (e.g. from applying for promotion) 

  • Harmful stereotyping, for example Black staff being characterised as 'aggressive' rather than 'assertive' 

  • Lacking authority to challenge managers, feeling unsafe to do so and worrying it will harm their prospects if they do 

  • Feeling isolated and unable to be themselves, with a pressure to 'code switch', which has an impact on wellbeing 

  • Fears that concerns raised publicly are ignored, and that staff who raise concerns are treated less favourably 

  • Feeling excluded from, or pressured to join, cliques and 'in' groups which have access to key information - often linked to a 'pub and smokes' culture dominated by white staff 

  • Routinely feeling underestimated and spoken down to 

In terms of how the organisation works, Black staff also suggested that: 

  • SMT needs to be better focussed, more reflective and more proactive on equality, diversity and inclusion issues 

  • There needs to be greater transparency and more focus on data gathering/analysis in relation to recruitment and progression, to address underrepresentation.  

  • There needs to be a greater focus on encouraging Black staff to engage with progression opportunities; many staff don't put themselves forward because they see it as a 'closed shop' 

  • There is a need for more training - in terms of improving leadership practice, educating white staff on how racism manifests, and developing Black staff (including ensuring training needs identified within PDRs are consistently met) 

  • There needs to be more space for discussion of racism and more resource dedicated to breaking down barriers and silos. 

It is clear from these findings that significant and wide-ranging action is required to create an environment where all Black staff at UCU feel supported and included in the workplace. UCU has already taken a number of steps in an effort to address some of these concerns, including: 

  • The introduction of dedicated briefings for underrepresented groups during recruitment processes 

  • A review of the PDR process to ensure a stronger focus on training and support 

  • Adoption of a target for 50% of recruited staff in London, where there is underrepresentation of Black staff at that grade, to be Black. 

In addition to this, we are committed to the following actions in addressing the issues identified during this exercise: 

  1. Training for all staff on tackling racism and building inclusive environments; we are currently working with E-quality, who led the listening exercise, to identify dates for this and expect it will run in March/April 2024. 

  2. Training for managers focused on developing inclusive practice to begin as soon as possible after the all-staff training. 

  3. In the interim, encouraging all staff to complete or revisit the anti-racism module on the UCU training room. 

  4. Design and resourcing of a dedicated development programme for Black staff. We have had some initial scoping conversations with E-quality and the TUC in relation to developing an inter-union approach to this work, with a view to having an initial cohort commence later in 2024. 

  5. Establishment and promotion of safe reporting mechanisms for Black staff to raise issues of concern. 

  6. Development of bespoke support for staff dealing with case work or other member-facing work which may be triggering or traumatising, including but not limited to issues of race discrimination.  

  7. Continued support and resourcing for a UCU Black staff group, and reporting of progress on action to address equality pay gaps as a standing item on the agenda for all-staff meetings, to create space for discussion. 

We recognise that, although it is not the responsibility of Black staff to drive the union's anti-racism work, it is imperative that Black staff have confidence in the measures we are taking in this regard. To that end, we wish to form a steering group with involvement from Black staff to oversee the implementation of the actions outlined above, and help identify any further work that is required. We propose that this group should be formed of members of SMT, representatives from the staff unions and Black staff representing a range of grades within UCU. We intend that the first meeting of the steering group should take place in late February. If you are a Black staff member interested in being part of this steering group, please get in touch. 

The above list of actions is not an exhaustive list and we will continue to evaluate the effectiveness of these interventions over time, but we hope this represents a good starting point in our push to deliver deep and lasting cultural change. These actions also complement the wider set of measures identified in the 2022 Pay Gap Report to tackle equality pay gaps, as well as the commitments outlined for unions as employers in the TUC anti-racism manifesto, which UCU fully supports.  

We appreciate that, regrettably, the length of time it has taken to share these findings and our plan for next steps has caused additional concern and undermined trust amongst staff. We are sorry that it has not been possible to progress things more quickly to date. However, the UCU SMT is collectively committed to taking action to rebuild trust and address the barriers facing Black staff as well as other underrepresented groups. 

On the latter point we will also be undertaking a series of roundtables this year in relation to the experiences of disabled staff, and further details of these will follow soon.  

Questions and comments on any of the above are very welcome - please don't hesitate to get in touch with me directly if there are any aspects of this you'd like to discuss further.

Kind regards,

Jenny, on behalf of SMT

Jenny Sherrard (she/her)
Head of Equality and Policy

Last updated: 12 February 2024