Minority ethnic university staff struggle with racial stereotyping and lack of recognition for work

Minority ethnic university staff struggle with racial stereotyping and lack of recognition for work

The 'Race Equality in Higher Education Sector' report makes a number of policy recommendations for higher education institutions, including stronger leadership on a culture of race equality, supporting diversity in staffing, and on making race and equality policies transparent.

“Sometimes, they think I have no brains, that I lived on trees all my life before coming to Ireland.” 

That’s how one anonymous college staff member described feeling undervalued in their work to the first-ever study which documents the experiences of those from minority ethnic groups working in higher education here.

Published today by the Higher Education Authority (HEA), Race Equality in the Higher Education Sector captures, for the first time, quantitative data on the race and ethnicity of higher education staff.

The landmark study also captured qualitative data from staff members who took part, who described their experiences of reporting abuse, stereotyping, and at times, the lack of recognition for their work.

Staff from minority ethnic groups reported experiencing many different kinds of ‘microaggressions’, which the 'Race Equality' report defined as "brief, sometimes subtle, everyday exchanges that either consciously or unconsciously disparage others based on their personal characteristics or perceived group membership".

Staff from minority ethnic groups were more likely to report they had been stereotyped in their workplace, or that their contributions had been minimised, than their white colleagues.

They were also more likely to be made to feel that the way they speak is inferior and that they had not been taken seriously.

Staff from minority ethnic groups were also far more likely to report having experienced negativity from colleagues when raising race-related issues at work.

Language is a “huge issue”, one staff member told the study. 

While I am a fluent English speaker, I have an accent and have seen many rolling their eyes. I also had my grammar corrected incorrectly by native English speakers.

Another staff member pointed out that greater efforts should be made to pronounce names correctly “instead of mispronouncing them or making jokes”. 

Another staff member said: “Sometimes my contributions, which I know will be innovative, won’t be considered because I am from black race.” 

Another staff member told the study how students “fact-check everything” they say in lectures. 

“They don’t behave like that with my colleagues. They also challenge my understanding of how ‘Ireland works’.” 

One staff member taking part in the study pointed out that overt, reportable racism on campus is rare as it is unacceptable amongst academics and students “so it would be more likely to happen covertly, off-campus events, etc”. 

Staff taking part in the survey mentioned incidents of verbal harassment, dismissive comments, and the use of racial slurs.

A couple of respondents told of incidents of racist graffiti or symbols on campus and of physical abuse.

One staff member said they had seen “a black female student being attacked, thrown an egg at, and called the N-word”. 

Students putting Swastikas on their clothing and goose-stepping through campus, and roaring abuse at Muslim students was ignored by management where I work. 

Another staff member reported being told “more than once to 'go back to your own country' by students if I told them something about their behaviour, [ie] smoking on campus by my office window, being careless with college property, etc”. 

Staff members also described unfair treatment in their career progression such as being passed over for promotions, or a degree of "nepotism" in appointments. 

The staff members did not report this as they felt “no one will hear it or change the decision”. 

More than half of those taking part agreed when asked if they reported racial or ethnic discrimination, harassment, or abuse to their institution, the relevant and appropriate action would be taken.

However, staff from minority ethnic groups were least likely to agree with the statement, and twice as likely to disagree, compared to their white colleagues.

On the whole, staff seem to have generally positive experiences of collegiality across all groups, the study notes.

“I feel included,” one staff member said. 

I came from [abroad] more than 40 years ago. I see myself as Irish. 

"I think how you see yourself, how secure you were at home, and how your early and teen social experiences impacted, influence how you interact and respond to your environment. Which is probably a big contributor to the individual's perception of being included or excluded.” 

The 'Race Equality' report makes a number of policy recommendations for higher education institutions, including stronger leadership on a culture of race equality, supporting diversity in staffing, and on making race and equality policies transparent.

It also recommends that colleges begin the systematic collection of data which will provide the “necessary evidence base regarding staff and student representation, access, and outcome by ethnicity, and benchmarking of this data against Census data”.

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