Why are there so few BME staff in leadership positions?

I am used to being a minority in terms of being a female physical scientist. I am less used to being a minority in terms of ethnicity at a Higher Education event. However, last week I attended the BME Leadership in Higher Education Summit run by the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) and the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (LFHE). Around 200 delegates discussed the possible reasons why there has been relatively little progress in increasing the representation of BME staff at senior levels in HE, and shared possible ways to move forward. There were probably about 25 or so who were part of the WME (White Majority Ethnic) group – point number 1 – if we are going to label groups – we need to label ourselves and by doing so acknowledge our white-ness. There are too many interesting topics that were discussed to present comprehensively in one blog, but here I’d like to share a few questions here.

  • Is University of Reading ready to move forward on race equality? Public sector organisations tend to be at different levels in terms of their readiness and ability to move forward on race equality. Comparing local government and NHS experiences, these can be classified as:
    1. Resisting – no understanding
    2. Intending – say it’s important but don’t understand the depth of action needed
    3. Starting – have a better understanding of local issues in the context of high level statements
    4. Developing – understand the issues and their aims but need to prioritise
    5. Achieving – clear vision but need to maintain

I would suggest that some of us in the organisation are around the “starting” level, whilst others are closer to “intending”, and some areas may be closer to resisting. In moving forward, there may well be people who have in the past benefited from privilege who find themselves no longer in that position. How do we respond to those people’s whilst sticking to our commitment to equality? Are we ready to have the difficult conversations needed?

  • Are we doing the most effective  “diversity training”? There was much discussion of “diversity training” with the general view being that unconscious bias training can be useful for starting conversations, but more useful in terms of changing culture is bystander training – giving people the confidence to challenge behaviors, and cultural competence (also referred to as intercultural skills).
  • What is the role of the white majority ethnic (WME) group? Here at Reading we have had a strong growth in our LGBT+ Ally network. Is it appropriate to do something similar here – or perhaps better a way of publically acknowledging membership of the Cultural Diversity Group (which is open to anyone who has an interest in race and ethnicity and how these influence staff and students at Reading).
  • What is the role of a “race champion”? Here we were introduced to a 3 stage framework: Stand up (engage), stand together (self-organised groups), stand aside (let the emergent leadership drive the agenda)

But perhaps the question that summed up the day was in fact:

“Why do people who look differently have to perform differently to achieve the same?”

 

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