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What does Black History Month mean for The Institute of Cancer Research?


October is Black History Month. Rose Wu, Deputy Chair of the Black, Asian and minority ethnic forum at the ICR and The Royal Marsden, shares some thoughts from the month and the work the forum has been leading on.

Posted on 30 October, 2019 by Rose Wu

Black Women Rising exhibition group photo

Image: Black Women Rising exhibition group photo. Left to right: Melanie Bastien, Shevelle Rose, Leanne Pero, Saima Thompson, Nevo Burrell and Helen George.

The numbers are striking. In the UK, the ratio of white university students to professors comes in at around 50:1. But if you’re a black student, it’s 2000:1.

An analysis of 2017/18 higher education staffing carried out by the University and College Union – which represents higher education staff across the UK – showed how Black, Asian and minority ethnic staff are underrepresented across the top roles.

The analysis showed that one in nine white academic staff (11%) are professors, compared with one in 15 (7%) of Asian academic staff, and just one in 33 (3%) for black academic staff.

There are still only 25 Black British female professors in UK universities.

Although universities are seeing record numbers of Black, Asian and minority ethnic students, this diversity has not yet translated through to staff, particularly at more senior levels.

Diversity in research

When we look specifically at science and technology, a recent report by the Royal Society on the scientific workforce found that Black and minority ethnic students are less likely to progress to scientific jobs after graduating than white students.

The figures show that there is a lack of representation generally and especially among top professionals who can act as role models. But it’s a complex picture to analyse, especially when we bring in other factors like gender, and in part because we are sometimes dealing with quite small numbers.

At the ICR, we are committed to increasing equality across all areas of our work. We have a diverse student body, with 26 per cent of postgraduate students in 2017/18 coming from a Black, Asian and minority ethnic background – compared with a national benchmark of 13.2 per cent for biological science postgraduate students.

As with national trends, we see an overall downwards trend in the proportion of Black, Asian and minority ethnic staff as we progress upwards in seniority – although there are exceptions, with for example a greater diversity in clinical postdoctoral and Faculty roles than in non-clinical roles.

Naa-Anyima Boateng, a Higher Scientific Officer at the ICR and Chair of our Black, Asian and minority ethnic forum, reflects:

“I love my career in science, and knowing that the work I do makes a difference. I come from a family that installed the urge in us to strive to do our best in our chosen career paths from a young age.

But the journey hasn’t always been easy. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that I haven’t had many black scientists to look up to – and I’ve also seen my peers elsewhere leave research as the environment starts to feel tougher and tougher.”

We believe that our strength comes from combining what we have in common – our shared goals and values – with what makes each of us different.

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Athena SWAN 2019-23

As part of our recent Athena SWAN Charter Silver 2019-23 award – which includes demonstrating inclusivity amongst its criteria – we developed an action plan to address points where Black, Asian and minority ethnic staff and students are underrepresented or leave research careers.

We have identified areas for focus – from recruitment, to how we work towards a more equal representation of staff across all parts of our organisation.

The Black, Asian and minority ethnic forum at the ICR and the Royal Marsden plays an important part in this work – inputting experiences of staff and students and helping to promote diversity and equality in our workplaces.  

As Professor Jessica Downs, Deputy Head of Cancer Biology and co-chair of the Athena SWAN network at the ICR, said: "All research benefits from having a diverse workforce – which includes and goes beyond gender equality. There are plenty of stats to show that greater diversity leads to improved organisational performance.”

“Working in an environment where you feel valued and where you have equal opportunities allows you to realise your own potential. In science, we are working creatively at the boundaries of current knowledge – and we need to be able to incorporate ideas from many different points of view and backgrounds to make sure we are drawing on the best talent.”

Learning from one another and celebrating success

The Black, Asian and minority ethnic forum at the ICR and the Royal Marsden is working together with each of our respective organisations to provide a space to discuss issues and push for initiatives that can help promote diversity and drive greater equality in our workplaces.

Our forum meets regularly, both through informal monthly ‘lunch and chats’, and through our formal quarterly Forum meetings which we use to progress initiatives that support equality and diversity in the workplace.

We also run a seminar series, where we invite both internal and external speakers to share their career insights and experiences with colleagues, and to acknowledge successes and achievements in the Black, Asian and minority ethnic community.

This month, for Black History Month, we have heard from a range of excellent external speakers, including the anti-racist campaigner Denis Fernando talking about the influence of Windrush on the UK’s healthcare system, award-winning biomedical scientist Olanike Adexa and senior biomedical scientist Nerteley Quaye, who shared her experience of applying for a more senior role in her own organisation.

At a panel discussion covering research and clinical care, politics and the arts – introduced by our Academic Dean and forum champion Professor Clare Isacke – we heard from speakers including Dr Navita Somaiah, Clinician Scientist and Team Leader in Translational Breast Radiobiology at the ICR and The Royal Marsden, Bellavia Ribeiro-Addy from the Society of Black Lawyers and formerly the National Black Students' Officer for the National Union of Students, and award-winning playwright Ade Solanke.

Talking about cancer in the BAME community

We have also been very proud to host the Black Women Rising exhibition – an exhibition of black female cancer patients, which aims to get more Black, Asian and minority ethnic cancer patients connecting and talking about their cancer experiences.

The panel was chaired by Black Women Rising founder and breast cancer survivor Leanne Pero. We heard the stories, and individual challenges and triumphs of Saima Thompson, founder of the award-winning restaurant Masala Wala and a stage 4 lung cancer patient, Shevelle Rose, a young breast cancer patient currently going through chemotherapy, and Nevo Burrell, a breast cancer survivor and style consultant.

We discussed the importance of representation and being listened to – and taking the time to find out what different challenges people may be facing individually in their communities.

Helen George, the founder of BME Voices Talk Mental Health which supports discussions around mental health in the Black, Asian and minority ethnic community, was also on the panel, with mental health care being a major focus of the evening’s discussion. The evening also celebrated the importance of community-driven support groups such as Black Women Rising and Saima’s BAME Cancer Support group.

Saima said: “It was an honour to be given the opportunity to share our BME patient stories and medical experiences. With the work of the Black Women Rising campaign, and BAME Cancer Support, change is coming!”

Naa-Anyima said: “Events like this where we all come together are why I am so proud and excited to be a member of the BAME forum here at the ICR and The Royal Marsden. Our forum provides a space for all staff who self-define as Black, Asian and minority ethnic to discuss and resolve our challenges, as well as acknowledging our successes and achievements as BAME professionals.

“Just as the ICR is a leader in research and development, it must also lead as a workplace that champions equality and celebrates diversity.”  


Athena SWAN Jessica Downs Black History Month Equality and Diversity Black Asian and other ethnicities
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