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Women in Academia: Diversity, or the Lack Thereof

One of academia’s biggest problems right now, tied with funding as the number one crisis facing higher education, is the gaping disparity between the demographics of undergraduates and the demographics of graduate students and faculty. The narrative of academia is the narrative of white men (and to an increasing extent, the narrative of white women, hi!). People of color are still shut out.

And so the next step, after recognizing a problem, is to think about why it’s around in the first place. It’s a complicated issue, and it can’t be covered in one blog post. I know, judging from the last two sentences, I am basically playing the part of Captain Obvious, but bear with me, please? There are gigantic institutional barriers to people of color entering academia. The educational system is in many ways a wolf in sheep’s clothing – painted as the great equalizer, a way to better your station in the world, quality education is disproportionately denied to people of color.

In academia, the further up the ladder you go (from undergraduate to graduate to post-doc to professor), the less support there is for people of color. The academic environment, especially due to its greater-than-average homogeneity at the graduate and professional level, can be an inhospitable and unwelcoming place for people of color despite its progressive reputation. Thinking about how to create a more welcoming environment, a truly safe space for people of all races, ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds, sexual orientations, gender identities, and disability statuses, is important, and it will require a lot of conversation, and for people with privilege, a lot of self-guided education and introspection.

As a white person, I have a few things to say to my peers who share my privilege:

  1. Listen. Listen. Listen. There is little that you can do with your time that is more valuable than listening. Listen to people of color when they share their experiences. Listen to people of color when they voice their concerns. Listen.
  2. Listening is great, but it’s good to move on to the next step: acknowledgement. Acknowledge what people are saying. Do not get defensive. Do not try to make excuses. Do not call their concerns “too sensitive.” Do not take it personally (unless you’re told to take it personally). Acknowledge the comments and think about them.
  3. Educate yourself. Academia is really into the whole self-guided research thing, so it never fails to baffle me when people in academia seem at a loss when it comes to trying to educate themselves about the experiences of oppressed groups. Look at social justice issues the way you would your research – before you can embark on your research, you need to go through the literature and get familiar with the topic, and the same background preparation is equally useful in engaging in conversations about social justice problems.
  4. I’ve used this analogy before, but I find it useful, so I’ll use it again. We all have experience with class discussions. Generally, we are required to have done some reading or homework before we have the discussion. If I don’t do my reading or homework, I cannot fully participate in the discussion. I can listen and learn from others, but it’d be inappropriate for me to just charge ahead full steam and talk talk talk without doing the pre-requisite prep work. While I appreciate it if my friends offer to fill me in on the reading or homework so I am not lost during the class discussion, I do not expect them to help me out; it is my job to be prepared for class, not their job to prepare me. And even if I did do all the reading or homework, I wouldn’t want my voice to be the only one – class discussions are much more fruitful if many people have a chance to speak and interact. Take this attitude and apply to discussions about social justice issues, specifically the experiences of people of color.

Cultivating a culture of respect and inclusivity is crucial for making academia a welcoming and safe space for everyone. While it is clearly not the only thing that needs to be done, it is one step toward dismantling the barriers that are in place now. I would very much like to hear about the experiences others have with diversity in academia and what they or their universities or programs have done to address the lack of diversity at the graduate and professional level.

Also, I want to invite anyone who is interested in writing about these issues in a longer form to submit it to Persephone. If you want, I would be happy to dedicate posts in the Women in Academia series to exploring this issue further, and I would be thrilled to have another writer join me in this series to specifically address these issues. I present one voice and one perspective, and while the comments on these posts are always informative, thoughtful, and amazing representations of the different experiences in academia, I would love, if there is interest, to see more experiences and perspectives presented and discussed.

10 replies on “Women in Academia: Diversity, or the Lack Thereof”

Thanks for this post. As a PhD POC I think you nailed it with #1 and #2. Indeed, if a POC is talking out a bad experience with a white colleague it is likely (as least for me) that the POC trusts the person she is talking to and probably does not want to have to justify why she feels frustrated/sad/down about some incident or situation. I appreciate it when a white colleague asks me for more information in a genuine manner. It is 100% good, in my view, when a white prof asks me to explain a bit more about the situation because they want to understand — not because they are challenging my feelings. Great post.

PS: LOVE LOVE LOVE this series (reading them ALL now!)

I love this whole series you’re doing, and I really appreciate this piece. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been to events or panels specifically geared toward discussing women in science, where all of the presenters are white women and no one even considers the intersectionality of race with gender. I have so much to say on this topic. I could write volumes. Maybe I’ll submit something. I even serve on the admissions committee of my graduate program and the things I hear about POC applicants. Oh my goodness. I’m trying to organize training for the admissions committee on this very issue, and I’ve been doing tons of reading about the topic of POCs in science and medicine.

I really, really would love to read whatever you have to say on the subject! The program I’m entering in the fall only has two women on its staff, and only one POC — and she’s one of the women. Also, in my cohort, there is four guys and two girls — including me — and we’re all white. I met all the other students in my program, and there was only one Black woman, and then one Chinese woman and a Korean man. Out of twenty-five people. It’s something I think is incredibly interesting and ironic, because my field is the one that’s supposed to help reduce discrimination in workplaces (human resources and organizational behavior). Go figure! That might be an interesting research topic, actually… hmm.

I think combating the lack of diversity in academia begins (imperfectly) with the four Es: encouragement, enlightenment, engagement, and example.

Before we can even worry about academia being a welcoming environment for people other than middle- or upper-class White men (which is obviously important) once they are there, we have to worry about getting those other individuals there in the first place. I don’t think it is an accident that my PoC colleagues came to my graduate program from very diverse campuses, places where they were far more likely to get institutional support and be encouraged to pursue academic careers; if I’m remembering correctly, eight (or approximately 1/3) of my PhD cohort were PoC (although one quite vehemently did not self-identify as a PoC), which was unusually high for the program, and five of the eight came out of schools in California (all from majority-minority schools), one came out of a majority-minority institution elsewhere, and two were from Britain. But the sad truth is PoC students just don’t get the mentoring that non-PoC students do (often by White professors clueless with privilege), especially when it comes to thinking about an academic career. Encouragement takes all manner of forms, from giving constructive and engaged comments on papers, to offering research assistantships, to broaching the subject of graduate school to top students. Anyone can work to encourage PoC students, but you have to DO IT.

Enlightenment is, of course, what AA talks about in this post, as well as engagement. Everyone needs to be learning and talking about diversity. It is grave mistake to think that “diversity” in academia is only an issue for those who “provide” the diversity. Obviously, PoC and others should have their own spaces to discuss how to cope with the lack of diversity in academia, but the onus is not on them to change their own attitudes, or spearhead institutional changes. The lack of diversity is everyone’s problem, and hostility to discussions of diversity (and hostility to the diverse points of view of PoC) is everyone’s problem.

Example is the hardest to provide, and impossible in one key way for non-PoC to provide: someone who is a non-PoC academic can never be a PoC academic. There’s no overcoming a 50-person department faculty with four PoC except in simply hiring more PoC. Most fields in most schools look extremely hostile to PoC (and to women) based only on the demographics of the faculty. And why the hell would you want to go into a career in which you will always be dogged by tokenism and feel like an unwelcome outsider? It isn’t just about attitude, it is about numbers. Numbers can be improved at the faculty hiring stage with affirmative action policies and a rejection of the myth of meritocracy (as is true at all other stages of this), but the whole thing is still a big, nasty trap.

However, anyone – PoC and non-PoC – can provide an example of sensitivity, openness, encouragement, and empathy to students and colleagues, but it takes active work. Dismantling myths about self-selection and PoC-specific interests and the magic of merit takes time and effort, but I think is less difficult than advertised.

The thing is, institutional barriers DO NOT disappear once a PoC makes her way to college, or to graduate school, or beyond. The barriers are different, but they are still barriers. The truth of their existence can’t be swept under the dusty rugs of the Ivory Tower, but must be confronted. Otherwise … well, nothing changes.

Higher education for womenz!? Sheik Dabooty requires all the womenz of his harem to become most highest educated in the arts! The art of sammich making. The art of sewing virginz sheeps wool. The art of swallowing the Sheik’s powerful man juice! –Yes, all womenz should have this higher educationz that you speak of. All womenz of the harem should also receive giant good hoop earrings on their wedding night to the Sheik so that forever after they have a convenient place to put their ankles. –This is the wordz of Sheik Dabooty!

Thank you for writing this piece, it’s not often that a person who is not of color GETS IT and so I’m so happy to read someone who does.

Highlights of your article that MUST be quoted:

quality education is disproportionately denied to people of color.

Why do people deny/ignore this?

the further up the ladder you go (from undergraduate to graduate to post-doc to professor), the less support there is for people of color.

And so the problem continues.

Thinking about how to create a more welcoming environment . . .will require a lot of conversation, and for people with privilege, a lot of self-guided education and introspection.

Sometimes I think the people with privilege are more of a problem than the out and out racists/intolerant. Their refusal to admit that there is a problem or include themselves in it makes it impossible to address the situation and impedes progress.

As a white person, I have a few things to say to my peers who share my privilege:

1. Listen. Listen. Listen. There is little that you can do with your time that is more valuable than listening. Listen to people of color when they share their experiences. Listen to people of color when they voice their concerns. Listen.
2. Listening is great, but it’s good to move on to the next step: acknowledgement. Acknowledge what people are saying. Do not get defensive. Do not try to make excuses. Do not call their concerns “too sensitive.” Do not take it personally (unless you’re told to take it personally). Acknowledge the comments and think about them

This should be on a bumper sticker somewhere, truly. It is the way to address the problem of racism, period, wherever it rears its ugly head. I cannot tell you how many conversations are derailed when a person cries fowl and claims to be offended or when a person interrupts to say that they don’t think it’s as bad as all that.

Halleluja. My undergrad looked like this – male professors – 20. Female professors – 4. Professors of color – 2.
The head of our department was a woman, but the worst kind of fauxminist possible – the ” oh i don’t like women, men are soooo much better ” , victim blaming, ” if POC were interested in this field , they would be here” and ” you don’t understand feminism” type of privilege scrambling asshattery. awful.
We (students) expressed the need for more women, more POC, more anything but old white men who cheated on their wives with cancer with barely 18-year old girls and only provided the same old shit. Her advice ?
If you dont like it, leave.
Years later, I’m still semi-disappointed in myself that I didn’t. I’d be a hell of lot less broke.

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