Despite efforts made in recent years to improve diversity within STEM, Black women continue to be underrepresented in this space. By listening to Black women who are studying and working in STEM, we can get a better understanding of the challenges they face and why improving representation matters.
This year, the theme for Black History Month is ‘Saluting Our Sisters’. As a Black-mixed race woman, I know first-hand how powerful and motivating it is to see Black women excel – my mum and two sisters are constant sources of inspiration – and I love seeing and celebrating Black women’s achievements.
This theme got me thinking about why it’s important we loudly and actively celebrate Black women. And for me, it’s about representation. The role of representation in forming perceptions about our identity, self-worth and capabilities is critical. It’s inspiring to see people who look like you succeed. It sends a message that you too can do the same, if you put the work in. And that the way you look need not be a barrier.
But representation doesn’t just affect how we view ourselves; it affects how we view the world around us too. When we lack representation in public, private and political spaces, it can have an adverse effect. This was something that came through in the recently published Black British Voices Project (BVVP) – a collaboration between the University of Cambridge, The Voice (the UK’s only national newspaper for Black communities) and management consultancy I-Cubed.
The BBVP focused on a range of social and cultural issues, including education, health and work – three areas Imperial dominates. Having captured the opinions of over 10,000 Black Brits, it revealed high levels of distrust and discrimination across Black British communities when it came to these areas, with a sense that the current systems in place are not set up to support or consider Black people.
Dr Kenny Monrose, Lead Researcher and Cambridge Sociologist, commented on the report: “A lot of nonsense is talked about Black communities being hard to reach. They’re not hard to reach, they’re easy to ignore.”
My takeaway from Dr Monrose’s quote is this: if we improve representation in all facets of life – from universities to hospitals to workplaces – we improve trust in these institutions. As a leading authority with direct influence in all of these spaces, Imperial has a key role to play in driving this forward.
The importance and impact of representation – at all levels – is something we should be paying close attention to at Imperial, as the College actively seeks to widen participation and break down barriers for Black students and staff.
3.9% of undergraduate students enrolled at Imperial in 2022/23 were from a Black heritage background, despite the fact that Black heritage people make up 5.3% of the UK population and over 16% of London’s population. At PhD level representation decreases further still, with less than 2.9% of our PhD student population from a Black heritage background.
Working at Imperial, I often find myself wondering what it’s like for Black female students studying STEM. To get a student’s perspective, I spoke with Janice Koranteng, who is currently in her final year of a PhD in Clinical Medicine Research at Imperial. Over the course of our conversation, it became clear she feels grateful for the opportunity to study at a prestigious university like Imperial, but at times battles with being the only Black woman in her team.
“Overall, my experience at Imperial has been good,” says Janice, “but I lack a sense of community in my immediate space, which can be isolating at times. It’s been great and inspiring to meet other Black PhD students in the wider community through the Imperial College Black Doctoral Network and at events hosted by Imperial As One, but I’d love to have easier access to people who can identify with what I’m going through.”
Seeing people who look like you at the top of their field opens up a world of opportunities and possibilities”.
This sense of isolation was the same sentiment I heard expressed just a week before I spoke with Janice, by many of those who attended the ‘Beyond Ethnicity Careers Conference’ event at Imperial. Hosted by Imperial’s ethnic minority staff network Imperial As One, the event was open to staff and students in the early stages of their careers, many of whom shared concerns that a lack of representation, particularly from those in senior positions, could hinder both academic and career progression.
“It would be so nice to see a Black female professor in my immediate vicinity,” Janice commented during our conversation. “I once met a Black professor at a conference, and it was so inspiring. Seeing people who look like you at the top of their field opens up a world of opportunities and possibilities.
“When you don’t see that, the perception is often that it will be harder for you to advance. But I’ve chosen to push against this mindset, and instead, I use it to motivate me to progress in academia. Despite the barriers I may face, I am still determined to achieve the goals I have set out for myself and not allow it to be a stumbling block. This determination to keep going is what led me to pursue a PhD, and during my research project I have generated novel results that have not previously been seen before, making a contribution to the field of severe asthma. I’m proud of this, as I would love to be someone other Black girls and women can look up to.”
Students often find role models in teachers they can relate to, but unfortunately for Black students in Higher Education, the odds are stacked against them. Shockingly, the 2020/21 Higher Education Staff Statistics report found that just 1% of professors in the UK were Black. And for Black women, the lack of representation is even more stark: just 61 out of the UK’s 23,000 professors are Black women. That’s 0.26%.
Imperial is home to one of these women: Professor Faith Osier, the Co-Director of the Institute of Infection and Chair of Immunology and Vaccinology.
I did some digging and found an online interview Professor Osier did with Dr Wayne Mitchell, Associate Provost for EDI, in 2022, as part of Imperial As One’s Belonging series – which explores the experience of ethnic minority students, academics and professionals. During the interview, Professor Osier had this to say about her experience as a Black female professor: “I wouldn’t say there are limitations. It’s just lonely. There aren’t many of us, so you feel like an imposter many times. Or I feel like I don’t fit the mould.”
Faith is not alone in questioning whether she, as a Black woman, fits into the professional space she is in. 98% of participants in the BBVP survey stated having compromised self-expression and identity to fit into the workplace. Some readers may be astonished at how high this figure is – and rightfully so – but it didn’t surprise me. I hear it so often among my Black peers, and if I’d have been surveyed myself, my answer would have aligned with the majority.
But Faith didn’t let this deter her from going after what she wanted, and in the interview she explains: “Rather than seeing the problem and feeling down…I use it to my advantage. The principle is: make the best of what you have. [Think to yourself] what do I have in my hand, and with that what can I do? And then go out and do it.”
This mentality is something Research Technician Success Fabusoro recognises in herself. She says: “When I was in sixth form my vision of Imperial was that it was very White male dominated. I never imagined myself here back then. But I have the ability to dream big. Where others see something as 'impossible' to achieve, I see an exciting opportunity and tend to run towards it! I ended up doing a Master’s at Imperial and achieving a Distinction grade! I was so excited when I found out.
“I chose to work at Imperial because it is one of the most innovative institutions in the world, and I get to work with amazing people who have done amazing research. But when you don’t see people who look like you doing similar work, it can cause doubt to creep in. At times I find myself thinking ‘Am I good enough?’ and ‘Should I be here?’. But whilst I feel like an outlier at times, I can see the work Imperial is now doing to shift the culture to a more equitable and inclusive one.
“It’s refreshing each time I see Imperial being open about its downfalls and acknowledging that there are shortcomings. I attended an Athena Swan lecture in which Imperial was very open about the lack of Black women in senior academic positions, and I appreciated seeing the university hold itself to account.”
The lack of representation of Black women in academia has wider implications outside of the staff and students directly impacted by it, particularly at a world-leading university like Imperial. Our research has a national and global impact, which is why it’s critical that it’s representative of the societies we’re serving.
In January 2022, Dr Sarah Essilfie-Quaye started a new position at Imperial as the College’s first Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Research Fellow. Her research focuses on gender and racial inequalities in academic careers in biomedical research, and the effects of this on underserved groups in clinical research.
Dr Essilfie-Quaye sat down with me to discuss race and gender in relation to Imperial’s metrics, specifically looking at the Faculty of Medicine, and there was a lot to unpack. Summarising the data, she explained: “Looking at a snapshot of HR staff records, our staff numbers have a good level of diversity across ethnicity and gender, but as soon as you move specifically to researchers, the picture begins to change and you get less representation of Black people. If we go further still and look at academics, the proportion of Black people – not to even mention Black women specifically – is tiny. And then within leadership at the very top, it’s non-existent.”
This progressive loss of capable individuals from academic careers in science is referred to as the ‘leaky pipeline’. The Faculty of Medicine is not unique in this, nor is Imperial as a university – it is a recognised problem across the UK and beyond. The purpose of Dr Essilfie-Quaye’s research is to study how this lack of diversity is having an impact on research being conducted, both in terms of the types of research projects being carried out and who is being invited to get involved in it.
Imperial is a trendsetter and a well-respected institution. As such, we have a responsibility to ensure we’re promoting equity and making sure all voices are heard."
Within the BBVP’s research, healthcare was described as a key concern by participants, with many feeling it is not a safe, supportive or adequate environment for Black people. Studies have revealed death rates are three to four times higher among Black women as their white counterparts when it comes to giving birth, which is in part due to a discrepancy in the quality of healthcare they receive. It’s easy to see how a lack of representation in medicine can lead to outcomes like this, which further drives home its significance at all levels of the academic chain.
Dr Essilfie-Quaye’s research also aims to understand the structural challenges that cause and perpetuate racial and gender inequality and identify practical ways to remove these barriers.
“Interestingly, Black students are overrepresented when it comes to university admittance compared to the general population,” says Dr Essilfie-Quaye, “but when moving into research careers this number drastically drops, and by academic level they’re completely restricted. I want to know why we’re losing this talent.
“I’m excited to have the chance to lead this research, not least because EDI work is often carried out by volunteers – and these volunteers are typically those who are marginalised – so having this resourced position is a great thing.
“Imperial is a trendsetter and a well-respected institution. As such, we have a responsibility to ensure we’re promoting equity and making sure all voices are heard.”
Dr Sarah Essilfie-Quaye will be documenting her research – ‘EQuity Lab Imperial’ – on Imperial’s website within the Faculty of Medicine’s Research and Impact section. She will also use this platform to post callouts for people to take part in research. For more information contact Dr Essilfie-Quaye on email@example.com
About the author: Isabel Overton is a Development Communications Officer at Imperial College London.