Continuing our series of profiles of women of colour making their mark in leadership, business and work…
Nicola is Deputy Director, Centre for Research in Race & Education at the University of Birmingham. The university is part of the Russell Group, one of 24 leading higher education institutions in the UK to excel in research, teaching and links with business.
Briefly describe your current job responsibilities
There is no such thing as a typical day for an academic. We do a phenomenal amount of work that is largely hidden from the public eye.
I am a researcher, a lecturer and I also have management/admin duties. I am a trustee of a national education association and sit on project advisory groups. We are also expected to develop a profile nationally and internationally which might mean speaking at other universities or taking up Visiting Scholar roles which I’ve done at the University of Wisconsin, Madison in the States and at the University of the West Indies in Barbados.
A typical week might include meeting with personal tutees; internal meetings about the management of programmes I’m involved in; external meetings with higher education or equality stakeholders; dealing with media or ad hoc public enquiries; writing references for students; planning and delivering teaching.
We also set and mark student assignments and, in the Summer, attend exam boards to discuss grading. I have postgraduate students so meet with them regularly for supervision. Somewhere in the midst all of this, I try to squeeze in time to write. Being published in high profile journals is part of how our worth is assessed by other academics. All in all, it’s a pretty packed schedule.
What were the key decision points that were important in deciding your career path?
I wouldn’t say I had key decision points as such. I went to the kind of school where it was expected that we would go to university or at least polytechnic. I had an amazing English teacher – Mrs Smith – with whom I shared my interest in Psychology and she brought in one of her Educational Psychology textbooks for me to read. I went on to study Psychology at university but was unsure what to do after that so I worked to pay off my student loan.
I then took a role as a Research Assistant in a Psychology Department at a London university because I figured that it made sense to keep connected to the subject area while I reflected on precisely what I wanted to do next. Part of my role, while there, involved supporting MA and PhD students and that, in turn, prompted me to consider doing a PhD myself. My view was if I was helping others with theirs, I could do my own. I also perceived, rightly, that there would be worth or value in my having a higher-level degree as a woman of colour. Anything that would help add to my USP – especially given that I am a woman of colour – would likely be beneficial to whatever I decided to do next.
My PhD focused on Black students and academic success. At that time (late 90s) almost every article and policy document I read, talked about Black students in the context of failure, underachievement or disadvantage. This really baffled and bothered me as it was not my experience and nor was it the experience of people around me. That was the formal beginning of my work within the field of race.
What do you enjoy most about your current role?
I love writing. I love taking the time to work out how, using language and theory, I can convey potentially complex ideas into something that resonates with others. I also really enjoy working out how to convey difficult messages via presentations or public speaking.
On reflection, I guess this stems from my school days. I did English A-level and revelled in the debates we had in class – people would be literally standing on their chairs shouting and arguing about why they disliked the actions of a particular character in a novel – and then in trying to work out how best to convey the beautiful complexity and intensity of that using the written word.
What is the most challenging aspect of your work? What strategies have you developed for tackling that challenge?
I spend a lot of time speaking with or advising senior white leaders from across different sectors about race. On one hand that can be thrilling because it is about social justice, working to improve the experiences of people of colour and improve practice. It’s very real. On the other, race often makes people uncomfortable and defensive. Building rapport and trust is an essential part of working through that. I am also very candid. If I think a strategy isn’t going to work, I say so and will offer a different approach to the same problem. We’ve been tackling the issue of race inequalities for too long in this country and need to be better at thinking creatively about how to improve things.
I would also say that my strength is very much in doing as opposed to process which is a bit of a challenge because there can be quite a lot of process in higher education. I enjoy thinking creatively or laterally to reach an end point. I don’t necessarily want that creativity to be bound by lots of endless and possibly conflicting rules. Strategies for managing that? Where possible, I tend to gravitate to people who have the same mindset.
What has been the most defining moment in your career to date?
Working at the Runnymede Trust (a leading race equality thinktank) has been affirming and wonderfully rewarding. I first worked there in the early 2000s. It was the first (and only) place I’ve worked where my experiences as a person of colour were central to my work and I didn’t have to hide or suppress that. Everyone was committed to the same racial justice agenda. If something happened in the news that was about people of colour, we talked about it. It was a space in which I – we – were ‘seen’ which is very unlike what happens in most other spaces.
The Director at the time was extremely supportive and provided a space for me to grow professionally. I had so much autonomy and was trusted to pursue ideas and projects irrespective of how ‘blue-skies’ they were. I really blossomed there. My first project was to work with teachers and practitioners from across the country to develop a handbook on race equality and cultural diversity for schools.
It was a huge project – I had to manage so many different people, some of them senior even though I was still very early on in my career at that point. It was great. I also worked with the publishers (Letts Educational) and their designer and explored which format and size, for example, would be most practical for teachers. I came up with a marketing strategy which saw first year sales exceed the publisher’s projections. And I had the space just to get on and do this. I loved it! It is very different from academia where we often have lengthy grant applications and review processes for projects.
Having impact and engaging users was a standard if not obvious part of my work at Runnymede so it can be a little odd to find, as an academic, that we have dedicated conversations about what such things mean. Working with Runnymede was definitely a formative experience. I still enjoy a close relationship with them and am good friends with many people I met during my time there.
Best piece of career advice you have ever received? And who was it from?
This is difficult to answer as I’m constantly asking questions and soaking up information from friends and colleagues – from anyone I meet – about their career journey and decisions, irrespective of the sector they’re in. A very highly regarded Black scholar once told me to always have a Plan B. I can see how adopting that approach means you end up looking more creatively at your experience skillset.
As a British Black academic, I have to be both ambitious and realistic. There are only about 23 Black female Professors in higher education across the entire UK – a figure which I find scandalous. This makes me keen to understand the context in which we are working and whether it is supportive to our progression. I also listen carefully to the careers advice I receive from senior colleagues. I’m interested in the answers to big career questions such as why did you decide to take x job at that institution at that point in your life as well as the more micro questions, such as, what strategies do you use to decide which postgrad students to take on or how do you manage your emails.
Away from your work role what are your passions?
I am a big fan of yoga. I’ve tried Ashtanga, Hatha and Iyengar. I tried Bikram once but thought the heat was going to make me pass out! Iyengar is my favourite. Yoga keeps me sane and grounded and reminds me to breathe through difficult times.
Specialising in race is hard work. People often come to me to share their stories as well. I value that but it means it is especially important that I have a space in which I can switch off. Yoga allows that. I am also an avid salsa dancer. There is a random, higgledy group of us who met on the salsa scene as it were and we dance together when we are out. We don’t tend to speak or meet outside of that context, which is fine. We come together to share our love of the music, then go our separate ways without so much as uttering a word about the world of work. It’s wonderful!
What are the three (professional or personal) books/websites/ or resources that you would recommend to others?
This is hard. I think a background in Psychology and Psychotherapy means that I am comfortable reflecting on my strengths and development needs and, if need be, I can talk things through with a particular girlfriend whose opinion I respect. For careers’ advice I tend to talk with people. I’m interested in their journeys, how they may have felt at particular moments and I’m especially interested in the rules for success that aren’t written down anywhere.
Professionally I am interested in whatever might help me think differently or give language to something I have witnessed or experienced. Derrick Bell’s seminal book Faces at the Bottom of the Well sits high at the top of my list. Bell forces us to recognise that racism is an embedded, natural part of society and rather than be depressed by this, we should consider how we might meaningfully and more profoundly work toward racial justice.
Zeus Leonardo (a US colleague) and Ronald Porter wrote a fabulous article called Pedagogy of Fear: Toward a Fanonian theory of ‘safety’ in race dialogue, about the challenges faced by white people and people of colour in being able to talk openly with each other about race. It sets out and articulates arguments that had been floating around in my mind for some time in a really powerful way. Finally, bell hooks’ work has been important for me. I read her book Yearning a very long time ago when I was first beginning to think about intersectionality and was still looking for a language to describe my experiences as a Black woman born and raised in the UK.
If the recommendation is for survival techniques, affirmation or encouragement in the face of challenge or adversity, then I would turn to the arts: Labi Saffre’s Something Inside so Strong; Maya Angelou’s poem And Still I Rise and, maybe something by Public Enemy for some old school, revolutionary hip hop.
What do you know now, that you wish you had known as you started your career?
That there will always be emails – lots of them – and it’s okay to leave them alone, do something else and come back to them when you choose. They don’t rule you.
Do you have any advice for women entering your industry?
Don’t buy into the hype that the reason you’re not progressing is because you lack confidence. Lots of women have oodles of confidence but may not be where they want to be careerwise. Look at who is at the top in your sector and take time to understand how they got there. Ask them or someone senior to be your sponsor, irrespective of whether or not you know them. My philosophy is very much: don’t ask, don’t get.
If you weren’t in this role what would be your alternative career?
The sensible answer is an interior designer or property developer. Something creative. I’ve dabbled in one or two short courses on handbag and clothes design and get a thrill from developing an idea from scratch, planning and realising the final product.
I’m also in love with the textiles department at John Lewis and used to spend time there just marvelling at the textures and intricacy of the fabrics. I would couple this with writing books. I love getting lost in bookshops – I wish there was a way of touching a book and soaking up the contents through my fingers. I have an enduring vision of being sat in a beautiful garden, at an ornate, wrought iron table lost in the reverie of writing. There would be books on the table and on the floor and the odd cat luxuriating nonchalantly at my feet. It would be summer. The image doesn’t work if it isn’t summer.
I also saw Motown a few months ago with my family and, my sister and I were singing along and pretending we were backing dancers. So the less sensible answer is that I’d be part of a 1960s backing ensemble, complete with the wigs, funky movements and outfits.
Nicola won the Outstanding Woman in Professional Services Award at the 10th Annual PRECIOUS Awards