My experience as a woman of color in higher education is not unique. In this piece, I will share my own story and discuss challenges women of color face to succeed in academia and how their absence in these spaces negatively affects the success of female students of color. Additionally, I will describe methods institutions of higher learning can implement to hire more women of color and how having women of color teachers has impacted my educational journey.
My Experience as a Woman of Color
My mother was only twenty-four when she was diagnosed with cancer. My father would go back and forth between Zacatecas, Mexico to San Jose, California to earn money that he would send back to Mexico to pay for her treatments. Sometime after I turned three, my father earned enough money to bring our family to the United States. My father worked and went to school, earned his high school diploma, and began taking classes at the local community college. My mother endured many surgeries, but ultimately lost her battle to cancer when she was twenty-seven. My father stopped going to school to provide for my sister and me.
Growing up as both immigrants and women of color in the United States meant that we faced significant hurdles just to “make it.” Most of the schools we attended were underfunded and overcrowded. The most alienating educational experiences I faced growing up were in middle school. We moved to an affluent neighborhood, and attended a better funded school; a Whiter school.
I vividly remember being in geometry class and being told by my teacher that the principal wanted to see me. I was an honor roll student. I played soccer, wrestled, ran track, and cross country. My first thought was that the meeting was sports related. I walked into an empty room and was told to “open up my backpack.” I stood there as the school resource officer and the principal looked through my belongings. I was shocked. Confused. The principal stated “Someone informed us they saw you opening your back pack and selling something.” Drugs. They thought I was selling drugs on campus. This is but one of a litany of incredibly alienating encounters I endured in the American educational system.
Founding of International Women’s Day
First celebrated in the United States on February 28, 1909, International Women’s Day is now observed annually on March 8th. In 1910, a Conference of Working Women met in Copenhagen to discuss women issues. The conference of over 100 women, from 17 countries, included women of many backgrounds. The congregation was made up of union representatives, working women clubs, and the first three women elected to the Finnish parliament. Clara Zetkin, a women’s right advocate, introduced the idea of an International Women’s Day.
The first International Women’s Day was celebrated in 1911. Women and allies marched and rallied in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland. On the eve of World War I Russian Women celebrated their first International Women’s Day. In 1914, all over Europe held rallies and protests to express their disapproval for the war and to express female solidarity.
There was less activity occurring for International Women’s Day as we entered the new millennium. However, the battle to achieve gender equity was being fought. In 2011, women around the world celebrated the 100 year anniversary of International Women’s Day. That year, President Barack Obama declared March to be “Women’s History Month.” In the United Kingdom, activist Annie Lennox lead a march across a London bridge in support of Women for Women international.
International Women’s Day is a United Nations-sanctioned day to celebrate women’s rights and inspire people to advocate on behalf of gender equity. There has been a theme to International Women’s Day since 1996. This year’s theme is “Choose to Challenge.” People should choose to challenge biases and misconceptions in the interest of creating a more inclusive gender-equal world.
Colleges and Universities Must Create Diverse Learning Environments
Achieving a diverse, equitable, and multicultural learning environment is considered one of the most prominent issues of higher education. Women, especially women of color, are underrepresented in educational leadership. Approximately forty-five percent of undergraduate students in the United States are students of color (Hispanic 20%, Black 14%, Asian 7%). However, only seventeen percent of college presidents are racial minorities, and only five percent of college presidents are women of color.
Women of color must be given tenure-track positions, so they can later be considered for higher positions within their respective university. A tenure-track position gives professors permanent employment at their respective university, and protects them from being fired without cause. When women of color are given leadership positions in executive committees for universities, it is usually as Chief Diversity Officer. Black and Latinx women make up fifty-two percent of Chief Diversity Officers in the nation. Other positions such as Chief Financial Officer and President are overwhelmingly occupied by white men.
When women of color earn leadership positions in colleges and universities, they tend to be put on the glass cliff. Being put on the glass cliff means a woman was elevated to a position of power, such as President, when a company is underperforming. This means that their likelihood of success is significantly lowered. While some women put on a glass cliff have been successful, most have not been able to overcome the institutions ongoing challenges.
Women of color are underrepresented in the candidacy for leadership positions in higher education because they have not been promoted to full professorship or tenure. Black women hold 3.8% of tenure-track positions and 2.3% of tenured positions. Latinx women hold 3.1% of tenure-track positions and 2.6% of tenured positions. Asian Women hold 5.3% of tenure-track positions and 3.5% of tenured positions. More women of color need to be given opportunities at tenure-track positions in order to diversify colleges and universities at the leadership level. Diversifying the leadership level of colleges and universities would diversify hiring managers and allow a more equitable hiring process.
Female Faculty of Color and Female Student of Color Interaction is Scarce
As a result of the absence of women of color in higher education, interaction between female students of color and female faculty of color is lacking.” When walking the halls academia students are surrounded by white imagery. Pictures and statutes of white men flood the hallways. These images and the lack of diverse professors, taken as a whole, send a message. The message articulates what it means to belong in higher education.
Many students of color come from communities with a strong sense and value of community interaction. Providing students of color with a mentor helps them stay actively engaged in their learning process. The results of a research study by Jeanett Castellanos and Alberta Gloria emphasized the need for Latina’s in college to have a strong support system. It is vital for Latinas to feel like they belong to their collegial community in order to expand their scholarship identity beyond their degree.
The enrollment of Black students at private, primarily white institutions consistently falls short of meeting goals because Black students at those institutions view the campus climate as hostile, alienating, and culturally insensitive. In Karkouti’s research study on Black students’ educational experiences in predominantly White universities: A review of the related literature, his model revealed significant indirect contributors to success such as peer-to-peer interactions, sense of connection to campus community, and faculty of color mentorship opportunities to the success of students of color.
There is Not a Lack of Women Applicants
The myth that there simply are not enough women of color applicants to consider needs to be retired. Decades of catalyst research has proven that systemic gender bias can seep into talent management systems, creating a vicious cycle that affects employees at every level. Research has shown that companies that prioritize creating a more diverse and inclusive environment, by, for example, hiring women of color, find reduced turnover and better business results.
University’s that want to create a comprehensive diversity and inclusion strategy must make their hiring process equitable. Institutions can move towards a more equitable hiring process by refining their job descriptions, auditing their communications channels, requiring diverse slates, removing bias from the interview process, and flipping the script. When employers post job offerings the description needs to be created so it is applicable to all candidates. Specifically, employers must eliminate racist and sexist wording from job descriptions. Employers can achieve this goal by screening for stereotypical masculine terms in their job postings. Words such as competitive and dominant should be avoided. Removing these terms from job postings will result in more female candidates applying for the position.
Institutions should audit their websites, social media channels, and marketing images to procure they are diverse. These channels of communication should present employees of all races, genders, sexuality, and ethnicities. Diverse potential employees visit these sites to determine whether they want to work there. Requiring diverse slates will increase the chances of hiring diverse employees. Having only one woman of color applicant is insufficient. Research has shown that if there is only one woman in your candidate pool, there is statistically no chance she will be hired.
Employers need to remove bias from the interview process. The creation of structured interviews by implementing standards will help reduce bias. Employers should look for core competencies outlined in their job description when evaluating candidates. Then they can score each interviewee immediately after their interview to achieve the most accurate outcome.
Finally, employers need to flip the script. Flipping the script means taking action by using words that create inclusive environments where people feel valued. Hiring managers should note that statements such as “we are color-blind in this office” or “you speak English so well” to validate candidates of color, is unacceptable. When providing feedback, employers should comment on a person’s actual accomplishments and attributes. Words matter. Employers need to be intentional when providing feedback.
Having Female Teachers of Color has Positively Impacted my Academic Career
Women of color have uplifted me with their strength, encouragement, and kindness throughout my educational career. Attending a predominantly white middle school was difficult, but there was hope. The most impactful teacher I had, who consistently uplifted me, and seemed to be the only person who saw potential in me was a Black woman. She frequently told me I was smart when I felt the lowest. On a monthly basis, she sent hand written letters to my home informing my father how amazing and brilliant I was. She did not know it but I was at my lowest during these times. After losing my mother, I found a family with my neighborhood friends. When I moved to the more affluent neighborhood I felt so alienated, alone, and I profoundly struggled with my mental health. Her actions possibly saved my life. She made me feel like I belonged there.
When I first moved to said school in seventh grade they insisted on putting me in their English Language Development class. By this time I was twelve years old, so I had lived in this country for nine years. I felt like I was put in this class because they saw the school I came from, and just assumed I didn’t speak English. I marched into then principles office, yes, I literally walked into her office, and told her I needed to speak with her. I told her I did not belong in this class because I knew how to speak English fluently. She, a black woman, told me I could be moved to a conventional seventh grade English class if I passed a test. I took the placement test and was moved to the conventional seventh grade English class.
In undergrad, I struggled enormously with my identity. There was not one Latina, or Black woman teaching in my department. As Karkouti’s research study revealed, I found a sense of community through peer interaction. I joined a multicultural sorority and my sisters, Latina, Black, Asian, and White made me feel like I belonged.
I chose to attend Golden Gate University School of Law because of its long-standing commitment to diversity and inclusion. Sixty-two percent of students at GGU Law come from racially diverse back rounds and sixty-four percent of them are women. I have had Latina, Asian, Black, and White female professors. Through the support of these women I have been able to become President of the Student Bar Association, Captain of my Ethics National Mock Trial Team, and now Founding Editor-in-Chief of Golden Gate University’s Journal of Race, Gender, Sexuality, and Social Justice. Professors Jyoti Nanda, Alison Wang, Helen Chang, Kaitlyn Romey, Rachel Brockl, Jessica Barber, I stand on your shoulders. Your constant encouragement, support, and guidance will never be forgotten.
Growing up as a brown Latina in America has taught me to choose to challenge. I choose to challenge biases, racism, sexism, and inequities in my day-to-day life. Colleges and universities must also choose to challenge. Female teachers of color face significant hurdles to succeed in academia, and their absence in these spaces negatively affects the success of female students of color. We can help women of color be successful in higher education by creating more equitable hiring processes.
Very insightful! Thanks for sharing your experiences and offering ways to combat this issue.