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A lesson in racism

Dr Fareda Banda was shocked to discover that her white peers at the School of Oriental and African Studies earned up to £10,000 more. Robert Verkaik reports

Monday 17 May 2004 00:00 BST

Few academics can expect to reach the professional heights scaled by the women's rights expert Fareda Banda. Educated in racially segregated schools in Zimbabwe, Dr Banda, 37, became the first black African woman from her country to be awarded a doctorate in law from Oxford University in 1993.

Her talents were later recognised by the Law Commission, where she worked closely with a number of senior judges, including Dame Brenda Hale, now the country's first female Law Lord.

Then, in 1999, she was invited by the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, to help to investigate the perceptions of lawyers and judges on the system for appointing QCs. The final report, written with Dr Kate Malleson, was well received and confirmed Dr Banda's status as a leading expert in women's human rights. Dr Banda, by now a senior lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), could expect a bright future.

But last year, she made an alarming discovery. After a casual enquiry about her pay, she uncovered evidence that, for the six years she had been employed by SOAS, she had been paid up to £10,000 less than her white colleagues. It was a shocking moment in Dr Banda's career and one she says she will never forget. How could one of the world's centres of excellence for black and Asian studies be operating a policy that racially discriminated against one of its leading academics?

When Dr Banda took her complaint to senior members of the college, she was told that pay was "not an exact science". However, it later emerged that a male law lecturer who had arrived at SOAS three years after Dr Banda was being paid thousands of pounds more than her.

The college agreed to offer her £17,000 to settle her claim for unfair treatment, but refused to accept that it had been guilty of race discrimination. Dr Banda rejected the offer and took SOAS to an employment tribunal. Last month, she told the tribunal panel: "I found the School's apparent preference for admitting sex but not race discrimination abhorrent. As a black woman, I consider that both race and sex discrimination are unacceptable, and cannot see that one is somehow preferable to, or less shameful than, the other. I do not have the option of waking up in the morning and deciding to be either a woman or black. I am both simultaneously, and therefore experience multiple and intersecting discrimination."

It was only when further evidence emerged about how another lecturer in her department, a white woman, was being paid £7,000 more than Dr Banda, that the college admitted that it might be guilty of race discrimination. This second lecturer had joined the college after Dr Banda and was less qualified. The college had also rejected her application for a previous position at the same time that Dr Banda had been successful with hers.

Dr Banda told the London tribunal how the revelation had made her feel worthless and bitter towards the college. "When one has low expectations of a person or a place, then any failings can be quickly forgotten. But I came to SOAS with high expectations. How does one start to communicate the sense of betrayal, anger, disappointment and a general feeling of being let down, that has come from my multiple experiences of discrimination at SOAS, an institution that I had held in such high regard?"

She also accused the college of exacerbating the "hurt" by the way it tried to ignore the discrimination: "The manner in which I was discriminated against was that, for many years, month by month, I was paid less than white comparators. This must have been within the knowledge of many of the college's administrative and financial staff, none of whom questioned the fact that an African woman was paid less than less- qualified white colleagues."

Dr Banda said that she had even come to question her own worth as a human being. "My confidence in my abilities has taken a knock. I arrived at SOAS full of enthusiasm for my research. Over the years, I have been filled with self-doubt. As the only black person in a department where everyone else seems to be able to get on, one starts to doubt one's ability and begins to think, 'Maybe they are right, maybe I am not good enough, maybe I cannot write that book after all. It must be me, they must be right. I am not good enough'. The School's treatment of me has left me wondering, 'Am I not human?'."

She also described to the tribunal how she felt "humiliated and foolish" for having trusted the senior management to treat her fairly. "The sense of isolation that I have often felt has been compounded by a feeling that I have been taken for granted." The experience led to depression, insomnia and weight-loss. Dr Banda's case is particularly disturbing because it shows that, even when black people believe that they are succeeding, they may still be discriminated against.

The college has now settled Dr Banda's claim for race discrimination and unfair pay by offering her a five-figure sum in compensation. Her solicitor, Robin Lewis, of Bindman & Partners, told the tribunal that Dr Banda would now be withdrawing her legal action. In a written statement, SOAS says that it is pleased to have reached an agreement with Dr Banda. But adds: "SOAS had admitted well before the start of the legal proceedings that, as a result of a mistake in the setting of the starting salary of one of Dr Banda's colleagues, it had in the past unwittingly breached its obligations to Dr Banda under the equal pay and race relations legislation. It had already brought Dr Banda's salary into line with that of her colleague and had offered to compensate Dr Banda in respect of the past difference in pay."

Dr Banda's experience has provoked concern among race-equality campaigners. Raj Joshi, vice-chairman of the Society of Black Lawyers, says that the case illustrates the reality of the glass ceiling that ethnic-minority people encounter in the workplace. "It is appalling that, in the 21st century, Asian and black people still have to prove that they are as good as, if not better, than their white counterparts. It seems that the glass ceiling has now turned into a titanium ceiling. Yet again, we have able, skilled and talented individuals who have to overcome more obstacles than ever before."

Oba Nsugbe, QC, a leading black barrister and former member of the Bar Council's race relations committee, says: "Without commenting on the facts of the case, it does serve as a reminder that it's important to act in a proactive way in order to keep procedures and structures in an institution, even one as respected as SOAS, under constant review, to ensure that unfairness to an individual does not result in discrimination by way of gender, race, sexual orientation or disability."

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