Putting Black women’s progress in the spotlight

Case study
Talking about
100 Black Women Professors Now initiative

Enablers Priority 1: We will instil a culture that prioritises access and student success and fosters a sense of belonging – Access and Student Success Strategy 2025, University of Leeds.

A keystone of our Access and Student Success Strategy is ensuring that ‘all students feel they belong and matter to the University.’ An ethos which is critical for students to succeed during their time with us. 

For institutional success, this sense of belonging needs to be equally considered for those responsible for the delivery of the strategy, and this starts with representation. Fair representation across our staff will provide a model for our students, creating a motivated Higher Education (HE) community with clear equitable opportunities. 

Until late last year, there were only 40 Black women among the 22,000 professors in UK higher education. 

The 41st is Lisa-Dionne Morris, Professor of Public and Industry Understanding of Capability Driven Design at Leeds School of Mechanical Engineering, who was awarded the professorship after 16 years’ service at the University. Professor Morris is one of the pioneering academics in the 100 Black Women Professors Now (100BWPN) initiative from the Women in Higher Education Network (WHEN), which supports Black women to navigate and manage their academic careers.

It’s important to have networks and fellowships with people that don’t just look like you, but think like you.

Professor Lisa-Dionne Morris

The University of Leeds supported six women academics through the pilot programme in 2021, which aims to challenge institutional assumptions and bias, recognise the need to address fundamental societal inequities and act to achieve systemic change for a fairer world. The initiative will help to address our immediate goal of increasing the proportion of Black women professors to be at least in line with the sector average of 2.3% (2020) and use positive action to accelerate change.

From progression to support

“It’s important to have networks and fellowships with people that don’t just look like you, but think like you,” says Lisa-Dionne. There's a need for people to stay within academia, regardless of background, culture, or socioeconomic group. I can role model myself to others as I develop, and that’s really important. 

“I’d like to aspire to become Pro Vice Chancellor of Global Engagement at Leeds, which is a big shift in mentality — but what if I’d started thinking that way when I was an undergraduate? Would I have got to the point I’m at now quicker?

“I’m in between fights now — moving from the battle to progress to the battle to support. The programme has enabled me to think differently about my place, my role, and my responsibility within the University.”

100BWPN helps universities address the socially constructed barriers of racism and sexism that combine to act against Black women pursuing an academic career where there are problems right from the beginning of the academic pipeline. Degree awarding gaps for Black students militate against postgraduate entry — not only a personal cost of racism and bias but a loss of talent to the University.

A sense of belonging

We want all Black women to be successful. It’s attitudes and systems that need to change here. Not the Black Woman.

Dr Theresa Munyombwe

Dr Theresa Munyombwe, a Lecturer in Biostatistics, also took part in 100BWPN and came out of it with an action plan and visible steps she can take towards professorship. She feels a sense of belonging in the University family that was missing before joining the initiative.

“I feel I’m now being treated like everyone else in the department, getting the same support as everyone else, and being invited into spaces I didn’t have access to before. There’s politics in academia, and I need to be known. I need to raise my visibility and be interacting with the people in power. The programme gave me access to those people and raised my recognition.”

“We want all Black women to be successful. It’s attitudes and systems that need to change here. Not the Black Woman.”

Theresa is not alone in thinking the problem runs deeper than personal ambition. Before joining 100BWPN, Dr Kendi Guantai, Associate Professor and Dean for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, was ready to step away from the job she loved.

“I had one foot out,” she admits. “I was that frustrated. I really wanted to leave. And unbeknown to me, that worried my colleagues, because there aren’t enough Black women in the University and there is a very leaky pipeline.

“Meeting other women on the programme revealed so many similar stories. It’s not just a Leeds problem, it’s a sector-wide problem. And the problem isn’t Black women. Racism is real and it’s structural. You’re trying your best to navigate a system that was never created for you.”

Being able to communicate directly to the most senior people in the University was a real positive for Kendi. “In all the years I’ve been at Leeds, I’d never met the Vice Chancellor and never thought I would. Yet here we were sitting in Simone’s office with her and the EDI (Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion) Deans and hearing her say she understood and knowing she got it.”

A systemic issue 

Leeds is taking positive action to help increase and retain Black women academics at the University, with the aim of identifying and understanding what’s stopping them from getting from where they are now to where they want to be, and then working on dismantling the barriers to career progression for Black women. 

Understanding it’s a systemic problem and not the fault of Black women themselves is something that hit home for Theresa. “Something was said that resonated with me: ‘We don’t have to fix the water when it’s coming out of a leaky tap.’ Black women do not need fixing, it’s the institution and the systems which need fixing.”

In the 2022/23 academic year we are supporting six postgraduate researchers and seven academics at various stages in their career through the programme. For more information about the University’s involvement in 100 Black Women Professors Now, contact the Student Success Team: studentsuccess@leeds.ac.uk.