• Aysha Yasin

Women Of Colour, Higher Education and Representation

For a lot of us university is starting up again soon, and it really got me thinking...

What role do women, particularly of colour, play in higher education and how has the relationship between the two evolved in modern times?

Did you know that the world’s first university was founded by a woman?

I was pretty shocked when I found that out. Fatima bint Muhammad Al-Fihriya Al-Qurashiya founded The University of Al Qarawiynn back in 895 CE, in what we know now as Morocco.

Women were involved in educational institutions centuries ago, we just weren’t taught about them. This whole narrative that we’ve been fed since we were born about a women’s place only being in the kitchen and not speaking and learning what we want is baseless. This isn’t how ‘things were’ back in the day and if only people would actually read history, they would know that stereotypes are stereotypes and not facts.

So... what are the facts?

The University of Cambridge did not formally award degrees to women until 1947, and Oxford until 1920. It wasn’t that women didn’t want to continue their education...in most cases it was just that it was never an option.

It’s understated to say that things have drastically changed from what they were like a few decades ago. Now the numbers have flipped, with there being more young women participating in higher education (56.6%), than men (44.1%).

However it doesn’t necessarily mean that attitudes have changed. Particularly for Black Women.

A study delving into the issue of the lack of representation of women of colour in academic roles has shown that within the UK, Black female academics feel like they have been blocked in progressing in their career. And this has had devastating impacts on the figures. There are just 25 Black female professors in the UK, which is only 0.5% of all female professors.

In America also there is a serious issue with representation of BAME women leaders.

Only 5% of college and university professors are women of colour, and it’s even more shocking when you consider that students of colour make up 45% of undergraduate students.

And when women of colour are finally given the opportunity to lead...they tend to be in situations where things have been left in a complete mess; we are set up for failure from the start.

"Why is this important?"

Because representation is important. 

For a lot of young women of colour it’s imperative that we have role models that look like us. Speaking on my my own experience, when I see someone that looks like me in the career I’ve dreamt of doing, it makes me feel invincible...like I can make it too. If they are able to get through those hurdles and achieve their goals, what’s stopping me from doing the same? I’m sure others can relate when I say this too.

Women of colour in any department or line of work, from law to medicine to arts, continue to inspire a whole generation that will come after them.

The issue here is the ever existing race gap. Although the numbers are on the rise for BAME university students, it doesn’t completely erase the problem...

...especially when studies have also shown that Black Women are significantly less likely to enrol in colleges than white women by almost half

Representation of women from all ethnicities in leadership roles is the way forward, and not to be a token to dispose of once the prospectus pictures are taken...but because we deserve to be in those positions.

Diversity has acted as a plaster to a gaping wound, as universities have only employed one or two members of staff to fit their own criteria of they they deem as ‘inclusive’. But representation, true representation, of our incredibly diverse population is how we start making right the things that have gone wrong.

Maybe if our higher education academics mirror how we look, then there could be a great opportunity that our student population starts doing the same.

Representation is long overdue but if there’s any time for it, it’s now.


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