Hello, this is talking to Titans a brand-new podcast from University College London. I'm Cathy Giangrande, a UCL Alumna, art historian and conservation scientist.
And I'm Gudrun Moore a professor of molecular genetics at UCLA Institute of Child Health. And first question, What image brings forward into your mind when I say the word Titan, I would guess it's an image of strength and authority, someone who symbolizes power, courage and status. And quite frankly, it's a title more often given to a man. But
we are here to change that. In celebration of International Women's Day on Sunday, the eighth of March, we are interviewing the female titans of UCL women in academia who have reached phenomenal heights in their careers, climbing the ladders and owning the rooms frequently claimed by men.
These inspirational women will tell us how they've navigated complex careers gained unprecedented Success in their respective fields stayed their work life balance, and survived to tell the tale.
We are putting these female game changers in the spotlight to hear how many of us encountered similar obstacles. Whether you're thinking of going to university, a student, a budding young, professional or firmly rooted in your career. This podcast will give you the tools to overcome tests and challenges in your professional life.
The guest on this podcast is Professor Ijeoma Uchegbu, the Provost envoy for racial equality, Professor pharmacy at UCL, as well as the pro Vice Provost for Africa and the Middle East. So welcome Ijeoma, you’re UCL’s spearhead for racial equality, and diversity. How long have you been in this role?
I've been in this role now for four years. The Provost envoy for race equality, which is a role which was created specifically for Because I asked to be given the responsibility to do a little bit more on race equality at UCL
the way you're a bit saddened that the role wasn't already in existence before you spearheaded it.
I wasn't really sad because it was only after I saw the data that I became a little bit more angry and determined to try and change things. And so I asked to be given a role. So what does the data look like? The data is really horrible. It cannot be worse than it actually is. You have very slow progression of black, Asian and minority ethnic academics and professional services staff to the higher levels, those levels nine and 10, where you get paid the most and you actually become managers. You have very few black, Asian and minority ethnic members of staff, actually part of the senior management team. I'm not even sure we actually have one. So the data isn't very good. But I'm pleased to say that The data looks as though it's improving over the last 12 months or so we've started to see slight changes, we've started to see a few more black Asian and minority ethnic members of staff. In grade seven, that's the grade where you have at least a degree. And we've seen a few more in nine and 10. And that's just changed over the last 12 to 18 months. So it's, it looks as if it's changing. And also you want to make sure that you have black Asian and minority ethnic members of staff visible in the organization. Because we say we're a global brand. Yes.
And we are in a multicultural city bringing about change is difficult. I mean, what else are you doing to make that happen?
UCL is in receipt of the race equality charter, and we've got that in 2015. And so there's a long and very detailed action plan associated with that. We are applying again for renewal for renewal to get the bronze award. And we have a lot of activity things that are going on these activities are all around trying to make sure that students that come to UCL get the degree classification they deserve. And we find that's not the case. If you're black, Asian and minority ethnic student, you tend not to get the degree that a white student would get. So there is an awarding gap. We call it a UCL and there's a big project around that. And UCL is taking that really seriously and making that a priority in the near future. And the things that they're trying to do is look at course content, look at assessments, look at classroom behaviour, you know, in order to change that, we also have some activity around getting staff promoted. So we have an inclusive advocacy scheme, where you have a senior member of staff who is very successful paired with a member of staff who has potential is black, Asian and minority ethnic is a two year project and at the end of that you have to ensure that you're running Today, Elise is eligible to apply for promotion. And we're not going to grade these activities as to how many people have been promoted. But we feel that if such members of staff who don't have the same kind of social capital, as white members of staff are paired up with success, successful people, we might have more people being promoted. It's a way to try and level the playing field really. So for example, if I was an advocate, and I've been invited to go and give a talk in Japan, I don't really I can't really go because my schedule is too full. I can then volunteer my protege for that particular high-profile event and give them a bit of profile.
One of the ways in which racism has been said to manifest itself in universities is through hidden white networks where white colleagues self-perpetuate promotions and career advancements. And bam colleagues are excluded. Is this something you've experienced?
So I don't know if they're hidden white networks. I'm not a white person. I'm a black woman. So I Probably won't be part of those networks. I don't know if such formal or informal networks exist. But I do know that at the end of the day, we tend to look after people who are like us. So if you're a white male in a position of authority, chances are you will identify with a young white male member of staff, who you feel somehow resembles you 20 years ago, and you'd be more likely then to think that that person is competent. So I do think that happens, and it'll probably be the same. If I as a black woman recognized another young, black female, academic and thought, well, this person may have the same kind of potential that I had. And I might then have, you know, aberrant behaviour
Given that 70% of UCL professors are male, and we know that BME is low. There's 1200 of them and only 600 women. That's going to be a network in 1200 people
There will be an influence Where's 1200 people will have influence and their influence them will impact on junior staff and will then favour some members of staff over others. So with this inclusive advocacy scheme, what we're hoping is that we can level the playing field because actually the advocate doesn't have to be black, Asian and minority ethnic, the advocate can be of whatever ethnicity, all they have to be as someone who is determined to change things, and to change things by changing someone else's potential and profile.
You're part of the black female professor’s forum. Can you tell us a little bit more about what that is and what you're trying to achieve?
So this was something which was started by a professor Ivjola Solanke she started this she's a professor of law at the University of Leeds. And she just one day came together and said, Well, I want to create a forum for black female professors because there are a few of us in the UK. And so what she did She just started collecting data. And these are black, Asian and minority ethnic, but it's just called the black female professors forum. And what she does is that from time to time, she tells us about the success that people have had on this forum. And I guess that's a way to encourage people to apply for things to put themselves forward for awards, and to give themselves more visibility. So it's, it's very, very useful in that regard, because a lot of people if you if you're sort of one or two, I think we've got it last count, we probably had two black female professors at UCL and we've got maybe 1500 professors or something 1800 and you got to so you could feel quite lonely. And, and you might then wonder whether you should be part of this group, but with being positive black female professor’s forum, you understand that everybody is also lonely in their organization, but they're all striving. So we've got people that have won The turn of prize people that have won the Booker Prize, all part of this group. And I've never had a group like that. I mean, so I, I read the newsletters and I feel I feel very happy. You've got people with various honours in this group.
So then you feel that Well, actually, black female professors are striving are achieving are getting recognition. So what's to stop me?
Have you personally experienced racism within UK institutions?
I can't say that I've had overt racism, but I have had some behaviours, which I consider to be strange. So I have a number of patterns. I'm an inventor. And I went to a company with a member of our tech transfer team who happened to be a white male, to meet some executives to talk about transferring our technology to this company. And someone came out to greet us and treated the tech transfer colleague as the inventor and tech transfer colleague had to say, No, actually, this is Professor Uchegbu.
Did you always want to be an academic?
No, I, I actually wanted to write novels, you know? Yeah.Yeah. So I fell into academia almost by chance. I was born in the UK, but I spent my teenage years and as a young adult in Nigeria, and that's a that's another whole long story. But um, I finished my pharmacy degree and I just did not want to do patient facing work. And I thought, well, I probably be able to hide in a university. So it was the sort of my perspective has completely changed. Okay, good. Now, I'm a total show.
What were you most difficult years during academia?
My most difficult years? Yeah, that's a good question. Probably when I was a student, those were hard years because I was a single parent and single parent of three children. The oldest was eight when I started the youngest one and a half. And I was doing a PhD.
How did you cope with that?
So how did I cope this It looks as if there's some, you know, herculean sort of effort, but it was really just managing day to day. And I'd say, one of my most difficult times was, I was in sort of a bed and breakfast for the homeless when I first started as a PhD student, because I just come from Nigeria, my marriage had broken down, I didn't have much money. And so I was I was in this bed breakfast for the homeless for some months. And I remember feeling really desperate because I'd hidden the fact that I was homeless from everybody I worked with, I was actually quite ashamed of the fact that I was living in such a poor state. And then I remember at 1.1 of the facilities in the hotel broke down, and there were 11 families sharing a bathroom. I mean, I counted all living in one room each. But you'll have a bathroom so there is a constant queue for the bathroom. Each time I have three young children each time they want to use the bathroom. I have to clean it. befriending the counsellor and saying, look, are you aware that where we're living, we've only got one bathroom? And the person at the other end saying, Oh, well, you actually I've got you down for two bedroom flat. And I thought this is a cruel joke. And I you serious? Yes, yes. So I moved into temporary accommodation. I was so excited. But then I moved again to student accommodation and you know, talking about my lowest period, it wasn't actually living in a bedroom for the homeless because you just got on with things. But it was when I moved into this second accommodation, and I couldn't pay my rent. I didn't have enough money to pay my rent at all. My student stipend was 130 pounds a month, and my rent was 100 pounds a month, and I still had to pay for childcare. So I applied for housing benefit, and I was I was refused. And I thought, well, that's it. I've come to the end of the road. It's been a great experiment, but it just hasn't worked. I need to do something else. So the next morning after receiving this letter, I went to the law library and started reading about housing benefit and read a lot about And discovered that actually, there was a slight loophole. So I went back to the counsellor said, I think I am entitled to housing benefit, you know, have a look at this because I wasn't quite sure. And I had a sort of caseworker in the, you know, the homeless persons unit who, who looked at it and said, I think you're right. I remember at photocopied pages from the statute books and to show them sort of, you know, underlying the bits that I felt were relevant and gave it to them. And they eventually agreed. And the thing that I found most hilarious is they said, can we keep the photocopies and I thought to myself, yeah,
you done some work…
Yeah, I thought you had all these
And then that was how then my life changed. I got housing benefit; it was that everything was fine.
You have amazing resilience.
That's what you that's what people say. But actually, you've got three young children. Yeah, you have no choice. You really just have to get on with it.
On the topic of children. Ijeoma, many women delay having children until after their PhDs and when they're in a more financial position with more money. What advice would you give to a woman who wants to do a PhD but are put off because they have children?
I would say to any woman who has started on a demanding career, have your children. If you're giving a lot to the organization, they will wait for you to come back. Yeah, you might have to coast for a bit. And I coasted I started my PhD at age 30. And I coasted between the time I had my first child and my third child, I was coasting. I wasn't particularly productive. I wasn't really doing very well at work. But I didn't know I had potential right. I believed in my own potential. So then I did my PhD. And then I went on and had a fourth child. Gosh, yeah, as a as an academic, because I thought, well, I had I had a new marriage and it we wanted to have a child and I didn't want to delay things. I didn't really care what was happening to my career. I just knew I had to have another child. So have your children as soon as possible. Preferably not when you're studying, not easy, but I mean a lot of people in there
I mean, I know a lot of women who are doctors and they're, you know, they said it's just so hard they're in their mid-30s or early 30s and they want to have children but they can't do it right now because their career is going to go side-lined.
There is never a good time to have a baby. Yeah, but then the best time to have a baby is when you've had a baby. It's never a good time and the thing is that having children I think is your whole different perspective on life. Right? I wonder whether I would have been able to do my PhD with all the ups and downs if I didn't have children right cuz one stress balance the other dress, I'd go to the go to the lab my experiments would fail but that's not the end of my life now cuz I get home I've got other stresses with the children have to make sure they've got warm shoes, warm coat food. So you know, you then don't get hung up in one particular area.
So is there any way thing that you're especially proud of?
I'm especially proud of going to the law library. I think I'm really proud of that store. And I tell it at every opportunity I can because I'm not a lawyer. And it was just pure survival. And I tell the story to make people understand that when you're faced with complete adversity that could end all your ambition. You can do away Yeah, you can dig deep, and you can find a way. Yeah. And I did it without thinking I was a hero. I did it just to learn more because I felt there has to be a way
who inspires you?
My PhD supervisor, Sandy Florence, he, he was amazing, because I remember when I started as a PhD student, I didn't. I didn't tell him I had children because I was so afraid that he wouldn't take me seriously. He was very old didn't tell him you had children already know, in 1991. If I said to him, I have three children. He would have said, I don't think you can do this. I don't believe I have three children and do a PhD at the same time. So I didn't tell him and then it slipped out by accident one day when I was talking to him, and he said, You've got a daughter, and I said, I've actually got three. So where do you keep them? Because he couldn't believe that I was dedicated to my work. And once he knew I had children, he couldn't do enough to support me. I mean, even after I got housing benefit, the numbers still didn't add up. And I said, Well, I need to take a part time job, but he said, You've got two full time jobs. You cannot go and take a part time job. How much more money do you need? And I told him, I think I need 40 pounds a week. He said, Okay, here's a little job to do, and I'll pay you 40 pounds a week. And there are many other examples. I just give you one. So he really inspired me. The other thing is that he was very kind to his students. So I try and be kind of hope my students will be kind to my students because you can be you can be as fantastic as you want and competent. But if you're not kind, then there is a big question. Problem with your interactions with people. I think it's very important to be kind.
Do you need a tough skin to be make it in academia, particularly in science in academia?
I think undoubtedly Yes. Because nine times out of 10, your grants will be rejected. But also, whenever we submit a grant or submit a paper, we get comments back from our peers, and some of our peers, not so gracious in the way they give their comments. And some of them are downright abusive.
Tell us just one, one sentence of the most abusive comment that you can remember.
So in the beginning, they used to refer to me as a male before I was well known, and they'll say he hasn't really thought this through. And this is a completely flawed premise. This paper has been sloppily prepared, but with no evidence, maybe point to one spelling mistake, but you have to have a thick skin when I started as a lecturer. In one year, I submitted 13 grant applications I got one. So you need to have a thick skin because of the rejection.
So looking back on what you've achieved, which is pretty enormous. And so a young black woman comes to you and says, I just finished my pharmacy degree. Thinking about PhD. What do you think? I mean,
it's a no brainer, go for it. Go for it. If that's what you really want to do, just go for it. Don't let anyone tell you that you can't do it. When I first started out and I'd finished my PhD. I was looking for a lectureship. I had a few people tell me you'll never get a lectureship as a black person as a black person. Yes, I really not going to happen. And I did. And you know, now I'm a professor and I have you know, I have a drug which the FDA I was at the FDA two weeks ago, we're talking about this medicine that we plan to develop and it was quite surreal to think that one of your inventions is being considered by the regulator. If I listened to those people, I would never have had that experience. So I would say go for it, give it everything you can focus on the metrics that matter. So focus on getting grants and writing good papers do work that excites you, and that interests you because then it's not work. And, and I would say to people, it may seem hard but academia is one of the few professions where you can have an idea in the bath at night, go into work, do some tests, and you know, create a whole new science and a whole new piece of engineering. That's You're so exciting yet, and nobody can tell you what to do. It's really a great profession. It Jamie, thank you very much for joining us. It's been a pleasure.
She doesn't provide an amazing role model with her. With her life story of of doing her PhD. She had three children under the age of eight and living in a hotel homeless people. Yeah, and And finally, with some inspiration, managed to get into a flats but still didn't have enough money? To be honest, I think many PhD students have issues about doing their PhDs under some hardship.
Yes, you might you do have people like that, particularly those that aren't necessarily living at home while they do their PhD. So they're having to rent accommodation, they don't get a huge loss of money now, they have to work long hours, they mostly have to travel into central London in the case of UCL to do their PhDs and you know, the goal at the end of having a PhD to do completely new and innovative piece of work is fantastic. But the job prospects particularly in academia aren't that great. So
a lot of them are going into emotional Yeah,
yeah. So it's something to be you know, she's like she she's a great role model for she's bridging both keeping going. Industry and she's an activist Yeah. Which is great. I think we should look up to and and you sell should be very lucky to have Ijeoma as their professor and dealing with race equality.
Thank you very much for joining us in this episode of talking to Titans. In the next episode we'll be speaking to Sarah Mole, UCL provosts envoy for gender equality. For more information please go to www.ucl.ac.uk forward slash UCL dash minds forward slash Titans. If you liked this episode, leave us a review in your podcast app, share it with your friends and tweet at UCL with the hashtag talking to Titans. The series was a whistle down production