Breaking Barriers and Smashing Glass Ceilings: A Personal Journey in the evolving Higher Education Sector in the UK

Development Monthly | #20 June 2023 | Justice, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion

Professor Dilshad Sheikh (she/her)

Deputy Pro Vice Chancellor (Academic) / Dean of the Faculty of Business
Arden University

Higher Education is an extremely dynamic and evolving sector and as one of the first Asian female Deans to be appointed to lead a Business School in 2015, in this article, I reflect on the barriers and obstacles I have encountered throughout my professional career, navigating a path to progress and enhance my career, obtain senior leadership positions, and be conferred as a Professor. These challenges have shaped my academic journey, motivating me to overcome adversity and empowering me to advocate for inclusivity, diversity, and equity within academia and higher education in general.

Born in Nairobi, Kenya, and the youngest of seven children, I was the only child privileged to go to university and l started my career in industry prior to making the jump into academia. Realising this was where I could enact genuine change, I moved across sectors as a result of my desire to help students from widening participation backgrounds achieve their goals and support their communities. I wanted to share my experiences as an ethnic minority student as well as my academic journey, and inspire students to strive for excellence, encouraging them to rise up again, if they ever fall.

From the outset, I was aware of the glass ceilings that existed for women and people from ethnic minority backgrounds in Higher Education. This was evidenced by the lack of representation in leadership positions and the absence of diverse perspectives which made it clear that I would have to confront stereotypes, biases, and systemic barriers to reach my goals. I faced implicit biases and stereotyping, which often undermined my achievements and capabilities. The double whammy of gender and racial discrimination was almost tangible, and I constantly found myself having to prove my worth and competence. Despite my qualifications and accomplishments, I noticed that my achievements were sometimes attributed to luck or random external factors, rather than recognizing my hard work and expertise. For example, as a female professor from an ethnic minority background, I have personally experienced the barriers that make it challenging for minority ethnic females to be conferred the esteemed title of Professor. Despite our qualifications, expertise, and contributions to academia, the road to professorship often seems obstructed with hurdles that our white, middle aged male counterparts do not face.

While these challenges were without a doubt daunting, and I was on the verge of imposter syndrome, they also served as catalysts for my personal growth and resilience. I was determined not to let these challenges limit my aspirations. Armed with self-belief, I pursued opportunities for professional development and sought mentors who could guide me on my journey. These mentors, some of whom shared my background and others who empathised with the challenges I faced, provided invaluable guidance, support, and encouragement. Their belief in my potential helped me overcome moments of self-doubt and empowered me to strive to be the best that I could be. However the most influential individual on my career trajectory has been my late father, who I sadly lost in 2012.  He would always lift me up to smash through those glass ceilings and overcome hurdles with his words of wisdom.

However, it quickly became apparent that my journey was not just about my personal success; it was also about breaking down systemic barriers and advocating for equity, diversity, and inclusion. I became actively involved in organisations and initiatives that championed these values, seeking to create a more inclusive environment in education for future generations. This involved engaging in conversations around unconscious bias, challenging discriminatory practices, and amplifying the voices of underrepresented groups. I recognised the importance of building networks and relationships within the industry. Attending conferences, joining professional associations, and participating in networking events allowed me to connect with like-minded individuals who shared my commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion. These connections provided me with support, mentorship, and access to opportunities that would have otherwise been inaccessible. For example, in addition to my work at Arden University, I am a volunteer for the Chartered Management Institute. I was appointed as the Chair of the West Midlands region in 2016, and then the region was extended to additionally cover the Northwest, meaning I was overseeing a membership across the majority of West England. This voluntary role gave me the opportunity to gain recognition in the Leadership and Management arena and I was able to connect with various individuals and grow my networks and support. I was also awarded the accolade of CMI Companion (the highest membership) which can only be obtained by nomination and a panel discussion. This demonstrated the impact I was having in the ever-evolving Higher Education sector.

As a female professor from a minority ethnic background, I stand as a testament to the power of breaking barriers and smashing glass ceilings in higher education. My journey has been marked by resilience, determination, and a relentless pursuit of equity, diversity, and inclusion. I encourage all of my fellow University colleagues to embrace their unique perspectives, seek out allies and mentors, challenge the status quo, and celebrate their achievements. By coming together and creating a supportive community, we can break down systemic barriers and create the way for a more diverse and inclusive University landscape. We should continue to empower and inspire one another on this transformative journey and build the way for a more inclusive and representative higher education sector.

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