Inspirational professor launches Black Female Academics' Network

A trailblazing academic, who is one of only 61 Black Women Professors in the UK, has launched a global network aimed at supporting and upskilling other Black female academics.

Lisa-Dionne Morris, Professor of Public & Industry Understanding of Capability Driven Design and member of the Institute of Design, Robotics & Optimisation in the School of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Leeds, wants to help remove barriers that can prevent members of the global majority from achieving their career goals. 

The journey to fulfilling her own aspirations hasn’t been easy but she hopes the support provided by the Black Female Academics’ Network (BFAN), will stretch far beyond Leeds and across the world.

Global support

The inspirational academic said: “The purpose of the Black Female Academics’ Network is for us to make connections so we can further our research within the research community and train and develop as Black females - and I say Black in terms of the collective of African, African Diaspora and Dual-Heritage females - for the purpose of ensuring that we are visible within academia and industry.
“I want for us to actually be a collective: more than just individuals occupying a space.”

She added: “I had to ask for guidance from three very kind people, a UK white male academic and two international white female academics, who worked with me to develop my understanding of the higher education system. Now the aim of the Black Female Academics’ Network is for us to do this for ourselves. For BFAN’s Black females to mentor Black females, sponsor Black females, support Black females, train Black females, but with the support of different people from different cultures.”

Supporting women

Professor Morris has worked in various lecturing roles at the School of Mechanical Engineering for the past 18 years, with a parallel career in industry as a design strategist, executive consultant, leading various national and international strategic boards. She considers herself an entrepreneurial academic.

She was promoted to Professor last year, after joining the 100 Black Women Professors Now! Programme, a pioneering systemic change initiative, set up in 2001 to increase the number of Black women in the academic pipeline. It aims to support participants to navigate and manage their careers, as well as challenging institutional assumptions and bias. 

When Professor Morris first heard about the scheme, run by the Women’s Higher Education Network (WHEN), she was shocked to discover that only 35 of 22,000 professors in the UK at the time were Black women. There are now 61. 
Although this shows progress, it clearly highlights the ongoing absence of Black female professors.

Vision for the future

Professor Morris said: “I look forward to the day when we don't need to count the number of Black female professors anymore…when these statistics will be irrelevant in relation to our progress.” 

She added: “I’m not interested in the past: I’m focused on a vision of where our academics from the global majority and the global minority are heading.”

As part of 100 BWPN, she was delighted to be put in contact with other Black female academics and professional services staff working at the University of Leeds and other UK Higher Education institutions. 

“I discovered talented and prolific Black females at the University of Leeds who I had never met, in 16 years of working here. I thought I was the only one.” 

Connecting with those colleagues, who have since become firm friends, inspired Professor Morris to want to provide similar support to all Black women working in academia.

“In terms of the Black female, it does need a dedicated network to allow this to happen, which involves not just people gathering but a way of facilitating and upskilling to make us ready for when we take those titles and prepare for the next platform.” 

This academic year (2023-2024) there are 13 women from the University of Leeds on the 100 BWPN programme: seven staff members and six postgraduate students.

Although the scheme uses the word ‘Black’ to describe its cohort, Professor Morris prefers to say, “Professors of African, African Diaspora and Dual-Heritage”.

Since becoming a professor, she has seized every opportunity to provide and participate in global engagement. She has set up international strategic partnership projects, which include working with the University of the West IndiesUniversity of Cape Town, and Tecnológico de Monterrey, Mexico, and is working to deliver a new 12-month Virtual Global Security Perspective Fellowship, which enables young researchers and new academics from the global majority to engage in research activities. This collaborative way of working is at the heart of our University Strategy 2020-30, ‘Universal Values, Global Change’.

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