Dr Cara Booker is Senior Research Fellow at the University of Essex and Director of Graduate Studies at The Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER).  

Dr Booker is also a member of our Race Equality Charter Self-Assessment Team (REC SAT) which is leading a full evaluation of race equality across the University and working with our community to develop a four-year institutional action plan. Here Dr Booker tells us about this important work. 

How did you get involved in the REC SAT and why is this work important to you? 

I got involved fairly early in the process. I am the chair of the Global Forum, a staff network, and as the University did not have a Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) staff network at the time the Global Forum would be the venue for staff to talk and address issues related to race inequality. 

Racial equality and inequality are important to me as an ethnic minority, but academia is a particularly stark place for BAME academics. One of the reasons that I enjoy working at Essex is the ethnic diversity of the students. While the staff does not fully represent that diversity, we are working hard to address this. Also, as an ethnic minority academic, I feel it is my duty to be a part of that change. We know of the work done to reduce gender pay gaps or increase the number of female professors, there is still more work to do. Similar effort needs to be put into reducing BAME pay gaps and to increase the number of ethnic minority professors in the UK.

How can the Race Equality Charter (REC) help us address inequalities at Essex? 

The REC helps us do this by allowing us to take stock of the current situation at the University, find areas where things are going well and areas where things need improvement and make actions that address both. We do this by sending out surveys to staff and students, much like the Athena SWAN surveys that just went out. We also talk to individuals who may have more insight into how processes work here at Essex. Then we can come up with an action plan that is forward thinking, pushes current ways of thinking and doing things, but will also produce actual change over the next five to six years. These actions can include very practical things like increasing where jobs are advertised to improving ethnic minority student and staff mentorship across the University. 

We can also look to other equality charters such as Athena Swan and Stonewall to see how actions that were implemented as a member of those charters produced change and how we can adjust them to reduce racial and ethnic inequalities as well. 

Have you faced inequalities at Essex that you could tell us about?

As an ethnic minority member of staff, I have not experienced any major issues with regards to racism or microaggressions. However, I am asked to be a part of different groups or panels. While this is a good thing and I like to contribute to these, it also cuts down on the time that I have for my own research and may not always be acknowledged. Other colleagues may not be asked to be a part of these groups as often as there are more males or more majority ethnic academics to fill those roles where there are fewer ethnic minority academics to be on selection panels for example. Again, not major but does highlight the need to increase the ethnic diversity of the staff here at the University.

What improvements/changes could we implement that would make a difference? 

There are quite a few actions in the REC Action Plan that I hope will make a difference, but we as community need to make sure that they are implemented and evaluated. Regardless of the outcome of the REC application, we need to ensure that changes are made. These include ensuring that all members of staff have appraisals and have a plan for career development. That ethnic minority students are encouraged to continue to postgraduate studies. That we work to further reduce and maintain the ethnic minority pay and achievement gaps that are observed amongst staff and students.

What’s the one thing you wished more people realised about health inequality? 

The solution is not just to educate people on good health behaviours or put resources into certain areas, but structures and institutions need to change. Just as the institution of higher education can positively and negatively impact racial inequalities, institutions contribute to health inequalities. Access to services, housing, greenspace, etc. how people are treated when in those spaces and the people who decide where resources go all contribute to how inequalities change. Until we address the issues within these areas, we will not be able to fully address not only health inequalities, but inequalities in any area. 

Has the pandemic changed the way these inequalities are viewed? Is anything happening to address them now?

I think that the pandemic reinforced what inequalities we face. For example, early on, we saw that people in specific minority ethnic groups were at higher risk of contracting and dying from COVID. This was due to many factors including the types of jobs they had, which did not allow them to isolate or work from home, the areas that they lived in, which may have been more crowded, etc. 

I think a lot of research continues to go into this area, but I don’t have a lot of confidence that true change will be implemented that will address this. Many scholars here in the UK and around the world have been fighting for changes that will reduce inequalities and unfortunately inequalities have increased in many cases. The changes needed may negatively impact those who are most likely to make the decisions needed. Choosing to do a difficult thing or making a major change for the right reason vs going along with the status quo is never easy.

What advice would you give to any students who were inspired by your success and were interested in a similar research/career path? 

It’s a bit cliché but find what you love or are passionate about and try to incorporate that into your career or job. I love to learn and try to understand people and their behaviours, and my job allows me to do that.

Find someone who will be a good mentor and champion. I have been lucky to have many great mentors from all backgrounds throughout my career who have encouraged and inspired me. Academia can be hard but having someone there to talk to and find out what they did to get to where they are makes it a bit easier.

Follow Cara on Twitter @cara_booker.