A day in the life: Iyiola Solanke

Every day brings a new chance to reduce discrimination, says the University of Leeds law professor

How long have you been in your job?

I became a professor in 2016 and dean of equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in April 2021, a position I job-share with my colleague Prof Louise Bryant.


What is it about your job that gets you out of bed in the morning?

There is significant evidence of discrimination in society – our institutions are a microcosm of society, so inevitably discrimination off campus is reflected on campus. Every day brings with it a new chance to contribute to reducing this through teaching and research, and indeed through my new role as dean of EDI.

In my research I talk about tackling discrimination as if it is a virus. To manage Covid-19, we have not relied solely on treating infected individuals, but have also introduced measures to change collective behaviour, for example social distancing. To manage discrimination, we primarily rely on the former; my goal is to encourage more consideration of the latter. Inequality can only partly be addressed by measures focused on individuals; structural deficits are equally important – and perhaps harder – to tackle.


What’s the first thing you do when you get into work?

It’s hard to remember, having not left the ‘home office’ for so long! But prior to the pandemic, after walking to work I would head to the kitchen for a glass of water and chat with anybody who happened to be around.

“I was very surprised to discover that most universities do not have a single Black female professor amongst their faculty”

Who are the two or three people you talk to on a daily basis?

The everyday life of an academic can be fairly solitary but as dean of EDI, I speak regularly with my co-dean as well as other colleagues in the equality leadership team from the equality policy unit, educational engagement and HR. We all agree that the way forward is to engage with as many people on campus as possible – in keeping with tackling discrimination as a virus, creation of a campus that promotes belonging and inclusion is a responsibility for all, not just those individuals and groups who may be targets of discrimination.


What’s the best thing about your job?

The ability to think about how to make change in small and large ways and the opportunity to regularly engage with new ideas and people across sectors and countries.


And the worst?

Never having enough time.


Your number one most vital prop/tool/piece of equipment?

My electronic diary – I could not get through the day without it.


How did you get into your job?

I became an academic after completing a PhD in the law department at the London School of Economics.

Although my research was on anti-racial discrimination law in the UK, Germany and the EU, I only became involved in the institutional EDI agenda in 2016, when I became a professor. I asked myself where the other Black female professors were. According to HESA data there were at that time around 350 in the UK. So I set out to locate them. I have made some progress (see www.blackfemaleprofessorsforum.org) but the search continues. I was very surprised to discover that most universities do not have a single Black female professor amongst their faculty and those of African and/or Caribbean origin are least present.

It is clear that this sends a very negative message to Black female university students and undermines their university experience. Since then, I have become more engaged in issues pertaining to racism and all forms of discrimination in higher education. I subsequently became chair of Leeds 11, the BAME staff network at the University of Leeds and, when our new VC Simone Buitendijk launched her vision for the university to put EDI at the heart of all that we do, I decided that I wanted to contribute to this.


What is it about your personality that makes you suitable for the role?

I am an optimistic person and have been told that I listen well. I can be determined and hold on to the belief that people can work together to make changes for the better.


Which five words sum up your typical day?

Fulfilling, varied, planning, water, walks.

Iyiola Solanke is professor in EU law and social justice, School of Law, and dean of equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI), at the University of Leeds

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