In March this year Dr Jason Arday became the youngest black professor at the University of Cambridge, at the age of 37. It was rightly given much media coverage and heralded as a sign of progress and change in our academic institutions. But amid the fanfare and celebrations, the data tell the real story: black academics remain significantly underrepresented at professional and leadership levels across all UK universities. Figures for 2020/21 published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency showed that just 160 out of 22,855 professors (one per cent) are black.1

Addressing the lack of black-centred research that seeks to understand the depth of the ongoing injustices faced by racially minoritised people was a large part of my motivation to embark on a PhD. Although passionate about adding to the body of knowledge and helping to shape my profession, I was struck by the level of isolation I felt, and the lack of representation of people like me within staff and the student body. I soon realised that to make my research journey sustainable, I would need to find fellow students of the global majority to join with and talk openly about how the rigidness of academic frameworks directly impacted the research I wanted to do. The Black Researchers’ Forum, which I founded with counselling psychologist Wendy Dugba, grew out of this need, and I now facilitate groups through the Black, African and Asian Therapy Network.

Facing barriers

A theme soon emerged from Forum members, particularly black women, of the demotivating effect of seeing no people like them in positions of authority in their institutions. Although there has been a significant body of feminist academic enquiry over several decades into the lack of representation within academic institutions, the first UK report into this, led by Nicola Rollock, was published in 2019.2 It confirmed that white men remain most likely to become professors, with black women facing the double barriers of race and gender being the least likely to gain the position of all cohorts.

White men are two-and-a-half times more likely to become professors than their female colleagues – according to Advance HE,3 the body responsible for promoting equalities across the UK higher education sector, in 2017-18, 15% (10,850) of white male academics were professors compared with just six per cent (4,340) of their white female colleagues. Fewer than five per cent of black male academics were professors during this same time period and a mere two per cent of black female academics. Despite being at a disadvantage themselves, white women are still three times more likely to be professors than their black female colleagues.

Research is the lifeblood of any profession that seeks to remain responsive and fit for purpose. It may seem far removed from the average working practitioner at times, but what is researched about counselling and psychotherapy in our universities has a trickle-down effect on how our profession is taught, practised and perceived. The increasing pressure from stakeholders and funders to present an evidence base for what we do has highlighted the need for more experienced practitioners to enter the research space and both validate and disseminate the learnings from their practice.

Many practitioners from racialised minorities have answered this call, only to discover that significant barriers to them succeeding remain in place. Black women in particular face extra barriers due to the intersectional double bind of being black and a woman.4 Inspired by the theme of this year’s Black History Month, ‘Saluting our sisters’, in this article, I aim to celebrate the many female practitioners who are breaking down these barriers and changing UK academia from the inside.

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Lived experiences

The lack of existing knowledge base to support in-depth thinking puts all black researchers at a disadvantage, particularly those who lack confidence in academic spaces. When Dr Kenisha Jackson applied to do a PhD to research the underrepresentation of black children and families accessing CAMHS, she feared her topic of interest ‘would be criticised or just rejected as a proposal’. Sure enough, she was ‘discouraged from research’ as she wasn’t considered suitably ‘academically able’. She was left feeling doubtful and inadequate but her passion for finding answers to this question made her determined to persist. For many, getting a PhD is seen as the Holy Grail that finally opens doors for black women to be considered for positions of authority at work.

‘Institutions need to honestly consider the disparities in the grades achieved between black students and their white counterparts,’ says Jackson. ‘How free are black women to speak, starting with applications and interviews to study, secondly support to write proposals and share their views without fear of unhelpful opposition? Students would benefit from supervisors who are willing to do the personal work necessary to be able to supervise someone looking at difficult topics around race, class, culture and identity, which may evoke difficult feelings that might feel hard to consider.’

Dr Isha Mckenzie-Mavinga embarked on her PhD in 2005 and describes ‘being passed from pillar to post’ to get the support she needed for her research into racism in therapy trainings because there were no available internal black or global majority supervisors at her academic institution. Institutions may think they have ‘ticked a box’ when they appoint a person of colour on the examining team but this is not enough. ‘It’s clear to me that if they are not well versed in black scholarship or aware of the impact of their own internalised racism this will lead to inadequate support,’ she says.

There is so much diversity of experience in being black or from the global majority that simply ‘not being white’ alone does not make a well-equipped supervisor to support the ongoing development of black-centred research. Mckenzie-Mavinga also reports the commonly shared experience of the difficulty for students to get time with the individual who is supporting all the global majority students.

Finding suitable research methods that are appropriate for your ‘line of thinking as black women and the environment you want to explore’ is another challenge, she says. ‘There needs to be an acknowledgment that we may want to build our own research disciplines that include critiquing norms in a white Eurocentric-dominated field. If more of us have PhD status there will be more role models and eventually more academic supervisors and examiners of colour to guide, support and encourage our authentic self-expression and facilitate the inclusion of our experiences and passions as black people and people of colour.’ This is why it is vital that more black people, especially black women, both enter and succeed in postgraduate education.

Helen George, a psychotherapist and current PhD researcher, says that there is an emotional impact for black women to manage in researching discourse and literature where their voices are missing. With ethnic minority women having the lowest material wealth in the UK,5 there are also financial barriers to studying for many black women. ‘Self-funding, which a lot of researchers including myself have to do, means working part time, or even full time as well,’ says George. This of course adds to the load of having to navigate the challenges of academia, especially if it also means – as it does for many women – factoring in caring for children and/or other family members.

Another extra task to navigate is finding an appropriate supervisor. ‘In my case both my research supervisors are white,’ says George. Although George’s university agreed to fund an additional supervisor in these circumstances and more universities are open to this, the onus is often on the student to identify that person, which can be a challenge in itself, given the demand experienced by the UK’s limited number of supervisors suitably versed in black scholarship.

An initial passion for a subject is not enough to keep the momentum going over time without the right support, says Mary Atito, who is in the final stages of her PhD on the experiences of black men in therapy. ‘The challenge is stopping the struggle to be understood leading to a loss of hope,’ she says. Staying connected to a sense of meaning was an important part of her journey, where she was the only black woman in her research cohort, which she says led to isolation and additional pressures.

For Atito and many black researchers, particularly women, there is an extra task of finding ‘supportive black colleagues externally so I could feel mirrored, supported and understood, and where I could share experiences and the struggles of doing black research without having to explain myself’. She says black researchers need a safe space to explore the complex issue of sharing the negative material she was discovering with white academics and white supervisors. ‘As well as the need to digest this painful material, we also have to manage a sense of betraying the academic communality by sharing these perspectives,’ she says.

Emotional investment

Dr Gail Lewis, a UK academic researcher and psychoanalytic psychotherapist, and a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, says there is often a drive in researchers to answer a question, and to understand something in an area often under-researched or to challenge a norm. For her it was finding an answer to why in the late 80s and early 90s there was a sudden push for black women to become social workers. ‘Doing research requires a lot from us as black and global majority researchers so we often need a particular emotional investment in the research. Currently we are still developing important knowledge related to the black and global majority research, particularity in this country,’ she says.

Black women researchers need to consider whether their supervisors or supervisory team know the relevance of black feminist or black scholarly work, and whether they give it the same value. ‘Do they unconsciously position it secondary to the big white scholars that everyone uses at the moment? How would you in these current terms bring into equal standing a theoretical framework offered by black scholars? How would they encourage you to develop your thinking and argument?’ says Lewis. It’s important that black students do not carry the load of ‘facilitating the comfort of the supervisors’ or educating them about power relations in which students will almost always be at a disadvantage.

‘Given the isolation of being the only one or one of only a few black researchers or early career researchers, black women can feel the learning environment is hostile,’ says Lewis. ‘Having walked through the door of academia, you can be left to feel your knowledge is not valued and often foreign to the institutions. Even when supported, black researchers can often find themselves on their own. This can tap into their lived experience of needing to be alert for hostility. Awareness among staff is needed about not treating black researchers as children who bring nothing to the table – they come with all sorts of life experiences and knowledge. This often brings richness and critical questions to the research culture that is very much needed. When this is recognised they can be seen as key players and this can reduce exclusion.

‘For this to be done, the structure needs to be changed, and PhD directors need to pay careful attention to the dynamics of every meeting or workshop where the status quo of white knowledge or positionality is championed. A classic example of this is when a black woman expresses an idea and a white male says the same thing, and he is heard as he communicates the idea using language that is more academic.’

The Rollock report also uncovered frequent experiences of black female academics being ostracised by colleagues (including heads of departments) during meetings and social events and, unlike their white counterparts, of ‘needing to go out of their way to demonstrate their competence, experience and knowledge’ resulting in the need in some respondents to ‘over-prepare for meetings, spend time accruing additional outputs as evidence of their suitability for promotion and limiting the time they spent in their office or the university’.2

There needs to be thinking about how we help marginalised people find their voice, says Lewis. ‘Academia has historically assimilated people into a shared way of speaking and thinking. Can we allow more disruptive and otherwise thinking to enrich research practice?’ This is a key point – can institutions make room for other voices and growth?

Cultural shift

Post-Black Lives Matter and activist movements such as ‘Rhodes must fall in Oxford’6 and ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ at UCL7 there has been a commitment by many institutions to decolonise the curriculum. But changing reading material alone is not enough – a much more critical, in-depth enquiry is required for meaningful change to take place within the wider academic system. For UK universities and academic institutions to overcome their racial imbalance, they must be able to think about their current culture, and how this is maintained and sustained. Until more diversity and representation exist within academia, it will continue to fail to represent the wider population and the needs of all communities.

Despite the challenges still present for black people and black women in particular in academia, engaging in research can be a very enriching process where you deepen your thinking, birth new ideas or models of practice and, more importantly, find your tribe. There is power in being allowed to do research that reflects a need within communities – as Jackson says, ‘More black people getting involved in research adds credibility to our work and allows us to explore, study and research matters that affect the individual and their community. Knowledge from a place of lived experience is important with a view to share knowledge and/ or bring about change.’

Representation is good, but inclusion is better, sums up charity manager and beginning researcher Carol Sidney: ‘We need British institutions steeped in our stories, just as much as those of our white counterparts’.

Black people adding to the body of knowledge is an essential part of creating greater representation within all levels of our profession. I encourage any black researchers, especially black women, who hear the call to pursue a PhD to do so with their eyes wide open and to tap into the support available. Your voice, perspectives and skills really are needed.


1 Higher Education Staff Statistics: UK, 2020/21. HESA. [Online.] 1 February 2022.
Rollock N. Staying power – the career experiences and strategies of UK Black female professors. University and College Union 2019.
Advance HE. Equality in higher education: statistical report 2018. London: Advance HE; 2018.
Crenshaw K. Mapping the Margins: intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review 1991; 43(6): 1241-1299. stable/1229039
Ethnic minority women’s poverty and economic wellbeing. Government Equalities Office 2010.
Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford.
7 Why is my curriculum white? [Online video.] UCL 2014; 9 September. videos/curriculum-white