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Race, ethnicity and culture, Social and behavioural

‘I no longer try to shape myself to fit’

Theresa Marrinan meets Margo Ononaiye, the first Black woman to head up a Clinical Psychology Doctorate Programme in the UK.

26 May 2022

Firstly, congratulations on your appointment as Programme Director for the Doctorate in Clinical Psychology at Southampton University. We've worked quite closely over the past few years in our respective roles as clinical directors and it's been lovely to see you progressing in your career. 

You were interviewed by Adrian Whittington for the Psychological Professions Network in January, shortly after your appointment. In that interview you talked about your mixed-race heritage, being brought up in a very white area, growing up in single parent family with limited financial resources, and experiencing racism from an early age. You also described your journey into the profession, retraining after a successful career in the tourism industry, and some of the barriers you faced… particularly the implicit and explicit racism. What was the response to that interview?

Amazing and overwhelming. I've had hundreds of emails, all with such positive comments, and I've had the incredible privilege of hearing how my story has resonated with other people. I tried to answer every email because it felt like people were sharing really painful, personal aspects of themselves. The majority of emails were from people of colour, but I also heard from people who'd been brought up in one parent families and in similar financial situations. 

How have you found your first year as Programme Director? Has it been what you expected?

Yes and no. Yes, in that I knew my team already. I work with a great group of people and we've really supported each other so that's been amazing, but there's been a lot of learning. We also had one incredibly sad event where a member of the team passed away. 

We asked trainees from our respective programmes whether they had any questions for you. One was how much you feel your race has been central to discussions around your achievements.

During training, it felt really central, which was quite a shock after coming from a career where it wasn't really discussed in such great detail. I think, to be fair, that every part of what you bring is scrutinised as part of the training experience. In qualified life it's probably felt a little bit different. 

I was ambitious coming out of training. As a slightly older trainee, I didn't have the time to meander and so I had to focus. If any doors were closed, I just looked for the next open one. I was given the opportunity by Dr Adrian Whittington to work on the Salomons programme, my first academic role after qualifying, and that really set the scene for my passion to help others learn and develop. 

Interestingly enough, the University of Southampton had no idea they were appointing the first black female programme director, which also feels incredibly important to me. When I made it public, I realised how important it was to share because of the way it can inspire and give hope to others… so now I shout it from the rooftops!

I've also been asked if you feel that class has played a part in your journey, and how race and class interacted, if they did at all?

Class, definitely. When I left school at 16, I had no A-levels so I had to re-educate myself. I did every single course I could, that was available at no cost, to make sure I was as skilled as possible when I started my degree. I was also aware of differences like the long words that people use and how fine wines are important to some people! Things that I just don't have on my radar. And because I know what it's like to be poor, I do get it when people are struggling financially, and I can truly empathise. It definitely made me thankful for the privilege of being able to train and contribute in so many ways within the clinical psychology profession. I think this feeling is amplified if you come from a poor background.

How do race and culture and class combine together? It's really hard to unpick. I can sit in certain work-related environments and feel like an outsider even when I'm being included. How the two are intertwined is too complicated to unpack in this interview. I can't split the two, it's all part of who I am. 

What sacrifices have you had to make to get to this point in your career?

I wonder whether some of my personal life choices were affected by having to move around so much. Every job I went for was a strategic move to take myself up the ladder. I've been very lucky as my partner and I have loved living in different parts of the country and made great friends, but it also means that you don't have a stable base, which as we know in psychology, is really important. 

You've been seconded by the Psychological Professions Network South East to look at how we can implement equality and diversity initiatives across the psychology profession. What is your vision for the role?

The psychology professions need to represent the people they are helping. One of the things I like about this role is that it spans a range of underrepresented populations including culture, sexuality and social economic status. Currently, there's a lot of goodwill amongst the profession to become more diverse and inclusive, but there's a question of how you actually do it and what support is needed. My vision is to bring together good practice. 

In terms of class, we need to support people in a variety of ways. This would include ensuring that there is an outreach strategy starting from school age and spanning the whole working age lifespan, so that everyone knows what is possible at every stage of their careers. There needs to be more role-models from poorer/low social economic backgrounds actively speaking out on their experiences to give others hope, guidance and information. I have learnt about the importance of doing this and I would urge others to do so. There need to be more paid job opportunities with positive action taken to recruit those from underrepresented populations such as race and class. There is also a need for research in this area, as we are all 'intersectional' beings… how do the different aspects of the self, interplay with employment prospects in the psychology professions? I sit on a variety of boards where everyone is trying hard to make a difference, but we need to pool resources, provide examples, and share frameworks to help Trusts and universities be more inclusive in a meaningful way, so it doesn't feel like a tick box exercise.

Looking back at your own journey into the profession, how have you navigated spaces where you haven't felt you belonged within psychology?

When I first started, I took a watchful approach because it was so obvious that I was different. At times, I was, and still am, the only brown face in a meeting. After one professionals meeting, where I felt different and not that welcome, I decided that things weren't going to change unless I made the change, so I became much more proactive. After that I began to take up opportunities so people could see what I could bring. Initially, I couldn't quite work out how I was going to fit in but then I realised that's not for me to work out, that's other people's problem. When I got to into that space, I got my confidence back. 

What advice would you give to white trainees about what they can do to support colleagues who identify as BAME, and how you would have wanted others in your cohort to support you during training? 

I genuinely felt very supported by my cohort throughout training. We were quite a diverse bunch, looking back now, although we didn't have that many cultural discussions and they always looked to me when a cultural issue was raised. That's one tip I'd give to white trainees: try to contribute, don't assume that the person of colour is always happy to be the person to answer those questions.

What can white trainees do? Loads. This is going to sound harsh, and I don't mean it to, but I find people talk the talk but don't walk the walk. So be curious. Don't sit back and think: 'I can't ask that'. Take responsibility for reflecting on your identity, your culture, your not knowing. You also see quite a lot of segregation in terms of who people will sit with, so take time to sit with somebody to learn and just be there with them. Look out for, and report, discrimination… everybody needs to do their part. Make sure you're asking about culture and difference within your clinical environment. When you're on placement, if you see somebody of colour who's aspiring to be a psychologist, offer to help, talk to them about your journey and share your pearls of wisdom. When you're qualified, always negotiate paid assistant roles. When you recruit, have diverse recruitment panels, look at the job specification and how you're shortlisting for people to make sure there's no bias in the language. Actively look to recruit people who complement your team in a variety of ways. 

Are there any important lessons that you've learnt throughout your journey that have helped shape your career and practice to date?

Just be yourself. Don't try to change who you are or conform to fit. If you're gregarious, if you're loud, if you have a beautiful accent, if you have a different colour skin, from a lower social economic status, have a disability, if you're white, whatever it is, just embrace who you are and be the best version of yourself that you can. Seek out every opportunity you can. If life throws you a knock, dust yourself down and go again, because that's what life does. Don't let other people deter you from your goals. If you need to improve aspects of you to reach your goal, work out how you can do it and never be afraid to seek help. 

If you could change one thing about the way that clinical psychologists deal with the race issue what would that be?

To start dealing with the race issue!

Have you got any specific hopes/ideas of what a fairer psychology would look like in the future to be more representative of our diverse communities?

I truly believe that we've started on that process, thanks to the various initiatives set by Health Education England and to the Programmes for taking on board those opportunities, but also because of all the aspiring clinical psychologists out there working so hard to make a difference. I've been truly humbled by the hard work that people are doing in their own time to make a difference within the profession. My hopes are that there will be more diverse trainees recruited onto programmes from underrepresented backgrounds, that they will be appropriately supported throughout training and appointed into posts where they'll be given the opportunity to develop and grow. The training community needs to be more diverse and inclusive, with more people from under-represented backgrounds in senior roles. At Trust level, I'd like to see more people from underrepresented backgrounds in consultant level grades and above because that's where we can make changes. When trainees qualify, they need to look at taking on leadership roles both within and outside of clinical psychology where they can make a difference. 

My other hope is that we can create safe spaces for people from underrepresented populations because it does impact and affect us when we're being taught and supervised by a majority white, middle class world. I've introduced a safe space for trainees of colour on my programme and I should have done that years ago. I'm seeing the beginnings of some amazing changes in our profession in terms of inclusivity, but we have a long way to go, and we all have a part to play in that, whether we're aspiring clinical psychologists, trainees, qualified staff or consultants.

How would you describe yourself in one word and why?

Phenomenal! That sounds arrogant and if you had asked me that question prior to the blog, I don't know if I'd have said that but the phenomenal response from my blog has made me recognise that what I've done is an incredible achievement. I no longer try to shape myself to fit. I am just who I am, and I think that's a phenomenal place to be.

Dr Margo Ononaiye

Programme Director/Psychological Professions Network South East Widening Participation Lead

Doctorate in Clinical Psychology

University of Southampton.

Interviewed by Theresa Marrinan, Clinical Director/Deputy Programme Director on the Doctorate in Clinical Psychology, Newcastle Uni