31 October sees the end of another Black History Month (BHM) and with it the withdrawal of the annual hall pass to binge read/watch/discuss/learn about all things Black (or Black enough). Many of us, who (but for conscious family members, supplementary schools, and the rarest of sightings then, a Black teacher), would have grown up thinking people who looked like us never did anything worthy of note, have come to revel in our autumn bonanza of Black brilliance. BHM is a time to get our due respect in the mainstream: we grab the opportunity to celebrate our excellence (congratulations Professor Bernadine Evaristo), call out the injustices done to us (Windrush scandal et.al), knowing that on 1 November normal service will be resumed and our stories return to the margins of mainstream life.
As a neurodiversity tutor and workplace consultant, it makes sense to take advantage of the fact that Dyslexia Awareness Week also takes place in October, and this year I did; audiences were very receptive to my talk entitled Neurodiversity: why race matters, which explores the intersection of (hidden) disability and ethnicity. That said, even with my perfect timing and how enlightened we are supposed to be in 2019, it’s telling how often I was told afterwards (usually in secret) how “brave” I was to be talking about race. Hmm.
It’s no surprise that having a Black History month leads to a glut of activities squeezed into 31 days. It can feel like going to an all-you-can-eat buffet of Blackness: fine at first, but you can never consume everything on the menu and you end up so full you don’t want to do it again for a long time. In the meantime, Black people carry on with their lives doing ordinary and extraordinary things, but there’s no denying the underlying racist thinking and behaviours that brought about the very first BHM in 1987 still remain today, particularly when it comes to representation in positions of power.
These are some of the issues explored on Diversifying Leadership, Advance HE’s leadership programme for Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) academic and professional services staff, which welcomes its 10th cohort in early 2020. Does BHM’s long established tradition of recognising the talents of Black individuals and groups have any bearing on the lived experiences of aspiring leaders in higher education?
If you work really, really, really, really, really hard…
For most participants, the echo of the “work-twice-as-hard-to-be-seen-as-half-as-good” narrative is palpable. Others need the time and space to make sense of the fact that, apparently, there’s more to success than merit (how else do we explain the persistent underrepresentation people of colour in leadership roles in HE and elsewhere?) That there have been positive changes since the first BHM is undeniable, but there remains a persistent underrepresentation of BAME people in management roles – a representation gap of 6.5% in 2017 according to the Chartered Management Institute’s "Delivering Diversity" report.
To deliver a programme like Diversifying Leadership is to open oneself up to accusations of reinforcing a ‘deficit model’ which suggests BAME staff need to be fixed; nothing could be further from the truth. All are ambitious and hardworking. Many are also sceptical from tick box fatigue (as explained by a former participant), scarred by endless microaggressions or simply scared to take the risks associated with being a hypervisable BAME leader. If we are to avoid the wellbeing catastrophe highlighted in a recent study by the Guardian, we cannot afford to wait for institutions to get all of their inclusivity ducks in a row: BAME staff need spaces to heal, critically reflect and strategise in solidarity with their peers in order to remain agentic and navigate career barriers in racialised workspaces. Diversifying Leadership participants want to know how you get named on a research paper that’s largely your work in all but name; how you deal with being mistaken for the catering staff when you’re the keynote at a conference and how you elegantly sidestep questions about race without finding oneself in hot water (a la Naga Munchetty).
Through a combination of activities - from insights from senior BAME leaders on how to navigate the politics while remaining authentic, to peer coaching circles where they home in on individual challenges and opportunities - participants leave with a clear sense of their worth and a gameplan to move forward in their leadership journey.
"I can’t tell you how much I’ve waited to get the right strategy to navigate a system that is so loaded towards white privilege."
This was a comment from a former participant who (after years of knockbacks) has just secured a much-deserved promotion. Others have reported similar achievements. A critical success factor is access to a sponsor who acts as a career advocate, minimally for the lifetime of the programme. Diversifying Leadership sponsors are senior leaders (mainly white, two to three levels above and in a similar field as the participant) who, unlike mentors, are expected to use their organisational capital to advocate for and help accelerate the careers of their participants.
A Sponsor Toolkit has been created to ensure sponsors understand how privilege and racial advantage benefit majority groups. Even with such positive career advocacy, progression is not guaranteed; this is where the failure to address institutional barriers can mean, despite being inspired and energised by the programme, they return to work facing the same career blocks as before.
Race equity requires an institutional response; to send staff on Diversifying Leadership is a statement of intent that institutions will hold themselves accountable for ensuring participants have a genuine opportunity to progress. This is particularly important when it comes to professional service staff who may have fewer formal progression opportunities due to a flatter organisational hierarchy. Inevitably, staff will move on, but institutions who are accountable and eliminate discriminatory practices (this must include meaningful development for white line managers and leaders alongside BAME staff), are less likely to haemorrhage BAME talent. And the due respect we see during Black History Month will be evident all year round.
What is your institutional response?
Find out more about the Diversifying Leadership 10 event.
 This term is widely used to describe staff and students from visible minorities; its limitations are acknowledged.