Fewer than 15 Cambridge academic staff disclosed their identity as black, Pakistani or Bangladeshi respectivelyLouis Ashworth

Running quietly and often unacknowledged at the side of the gender pay gap, the disparity in pay between white and BME people in this country has existed for decades. So, too, has the disparity between the growing media attention and institutional action surrounding the gender pay gap and the silence surrounding the BME pay gap.

Similarly to the gender pay gap, this is a problem which reflects the multitude of limitations faced by BME people in the workplace: the casual racism, the belief that we don’t really belong in positions of power, and the lack of representation at the highest levels of business and government. In almost any walk of life, BME people are less likely to break into an industry and are then held back from progressing within it.

Racism in the workplace is reflected in the overt harassment of non-white figures in the public eye – think of the almost daily racist messages and threats received by David Lammy or Diane Abbott. Yet at its most structural and its most insidious, it manifests in the systematic undervaluing and underrepresentation of BME people, and the result of this is a pay gap that reaches above 20% in some institutions. Some would blame the gap on a disparity in educational attainment between white and BME students – yet in 2016, a study found that the pay gap actually widens with qualifications. Black people with GCSEs were paid 11% less than their white counterparts, while for black graduates, the gap was 23%. For Ethnic Minority people as a whole, the pay gap at degree level was 10%.

“Black academic and research staff at Cambridge make on average nearly £12,000 a year less than white staff”

These figures are shocking, and yet the problem has gone largely undiscussed in the national media. Compared to the uproar about the gender pay gap in the past year, there has been practically nothing about the BME pay gap. For the BME women who are caught in the crossfire of these discriminations, the silence on the BME pay gap neglects to acknowledge their experiences. 

In part, yes, this might be down to the fact that one issue affects around half the inhabitants of this country, while the other affects a minority. But to me, this is also another demonstration of the refusal of this country to face up to the racist legacies of its colonial past. Most people find it too difficult to address the ways in which BME people have been systematically disadvantaged, because it requires facing up to the racism that has been ingrained in our institutions and our everyday interactions.

This is a problem which integrally concerns the University – as Varsity has reported, black academic and research staff at Cambridge make on average nearly £12,000 a year less than white academic and research staff. Racism at the University is often considered to be an issue on the students’ side, a problem of access and an alienating culture experienced by BME students here.


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While these are all struggles of fundamental importance, we need to start a conversation about the ways in which racism institutionally permeates the entire structure of the University and how significant its impact on staff can be. Not only are BME staff at the University disadvantaged in terms of the pay gap; they are hugely underrepresented, with fewer than 15 members of academic staff disclosing their identity as black, Pakistani or Bangladeshi respectively. 

A conversation about the experience of BME staff at the University is long overdue – the voices of those who have spoken out about the problems, such as Dr Priyamvada Gopal, are essential but far too rare. Just as the country as a whole needs to be talking about racism in the workplace, we need to expand our discussions of racism to encompass all minority members of the University, not just students. 

In an announcement earlier this month, Theresa May finally spoke out on the issue: the government plans to launch a consultation into whether mandatory reporting of wages will help to solve the problem. This seems like the right move – the gender gap furore proved that the only way to address systematic discrimination of this kind is to bring a lot of attention and public pressure to bear on the companies responsible. ITN, for example, have committed to halving their BME pay gap within five years.

Public pressure can work in the case of the University as well – the successes of the divestment campaign and campaign to end class lists have proven this. The revelation of these statistics about the status of BME staff within the University must provoke a similarly tireless campaign to secure fair treatment. Of course, the disparities within the University are part of a much wider national problem, and are certainly not about to be solved overnight. The University has been making efforts, with the development of “diverse recruitment guidelines to help attract more Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BME) staff”, but it would do well to remember that the BME pay gap at play when these individuals do become members of staff within this institution is a matter deserving of attention - and immediately - within its own right. If the University is truly “committed to being a space free from racism [and] discrimination,” it must commit itself publicly and immediately to resolving this most striking of injustices at its core.

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