Guest post: What my research has taught me about white privilege in the academy

Thank you to Will Southall who is a second year undergraduate student studying for a degree in Economics and French at University of Leeds.  Will has worked as a researcher exploring undergraduate students’ work-readiness, with Dr Iwi Ugiagbe-Green who recently provided a guest post on this blog addressing why #BlackLivesMatter is relevant to higher education. In this post Will explores the issue of white privilege.

Last year I was awarded a Laidlaw Scholarship at the University of Leeds. The scholarship involves taking part in two 6 week research placements across two summers, the second of which is now coming to an end for me. My research has allowed me to explore areas such as the work-readiness of undergraduate students and the hiring practices of graduate employers. Working alongside my research supervisor Dr Iwi Ugiagbe-Green, I have been able to meet so many interesting people and have had countless eye-opening conversations with employability stakeholders across the country.

When I started my work, my first task was to analyse a survey and focus groups of Leeds University students, which discussed, amongst other things, what it was to fit into your chosen career and what it meant to be ‘professional’. The results were shocking.

Black students found it significantly more difficult than white students to access the resources they felt they needed to develop their professional skills and capabilities. Black students were significantly less confident in knowing what it meant to be professional in their chosen careers compared with white students. Black students were less confident that they will ‘fit’ into their chosen careers. I could go on.

For too long I was blissfully unaware of the devastating inequality that manifests itself at every stage of the student lifecycle. I had convinced myself that getting in and getting on in the graduate labour market were outcomes entrenched in meritocracy. They are not.

I used to be agnostic about the use of targeted, positive action towards minority groups, now I believe it is essential. Employers who say ‘there are only so many women I can employ out of an overwhelmingly male pool of candidates’ need to ask themselves what they’re doing wrong to attract such a narrow demographic of applicants. Underrepresented groups need to be targeted right from the start, with additional, exclusive opportunities. If companies can increase the diversity of their interns, then they will likely see an increase in the diversity of students applying for graduate positions. But the problem doesn’t stop there.

One of the most important things that I have learnt from my research is that getting on is just as important as getting in. As a white male student I had never been aware of the true importance of role models in shaping career decisions. Whatever industry or company that I decide I want to join after university, there is a decent chance that it is headed up by a heterosexual, cisgender, middle-class, white man. I never realised the importance of role models because I had never been part of the minority. I have never had to look for individuals paving the way for me because as a white man I can already identify with the industry’s majority on some level.

In October 2019, the Financial Reporting Council accused the accounting profession of not doing enough to better diversity within their firms, finding that only 17% of partners at UK accounting firms were women. This is horrendously low. Diversity and inclusion within the workplace needs to no longer be a second thought but rather at the forefront of all decision making.

I am privileged in so many ways but perhaps none more so than having had the opportunity to be a part of this project, which has forced me to confront the harsh realities of systemic racism, discrimination and unequal opportunities. I believe that almost all of us want to see the back of these problems and many people in privileged positions will admit that such issues exist, but not enough of us realise the extent to which they can have an effect on the lives of minority groups. However bad you think the problem is, it is probably much worse. A white student who enters university with A-Level grades of BBB is more likely to get a 2:1 or a 1st than a black student who enters with AAA. If that’s not enough to convince you there’s a problem then I don’t know what is. These problems should not be left to be dealt with by those whom it affects the most. I’ve learnt that I need to use my white, male privilege to help do what I can to level the field, and this is something that I will carry forward throughout my career.

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