On Racist And Sexist Discrimination In Academia

The days of formally excluding women and people of color as faculty, staff, and students from colleges and universities are long gone.  And, great progress has been made toward achieving diversity on college campuses along the lines of race, ethnicity, gender, and nationality.  But, it seems diversifying the professoriate remains a stubbornly challenging problem.  The realities of racism and sexism in the academy are complex, and shape every stage of the academic pipeline — from admission to graduate school to promotion to full professor to university leadership.  So, the mere counting of how many women and people of color “come through the door” as faculty misses these larger problems.

Leaky Pipeline

Racial And Gender Inequalities In Graduate School

Beyond admission to graduate training programs, the quality and extent of the mentorship one receives is shaped by their race and gender.  In a recent study, professors at over 250 colleges and universities received fictitious emails from PhD students requesting meetings.  Professors were more likely to grant meetings for the following week to students presumed to be white men compared to those presumed to be women and/or of color.  But, no difference was found for meeting requests for that day.  The difference for later meetings was attributed to the sense that such meetings were worth the professors’ time.  One could extrapolate from this that racial and gender differences in investment from faculty may exist beyond scheduling meetings.  And, these inequalities in mentorship may increase throughout graduate training, posing potential disadvantages to students as they pursue jobs and their success beyond the PhD.

And, what if this is interpreted as racist and/or sexist bias among professors — particularly among white men faculty?  One way of avoiding this would be to seek advisers from one’s own background — women professors for women students, faculty of color for students of color.  These relationships might be more comfortable, including support for one’s research (especially if it is on gender and/or race and ethnicity) and for one’s subjectivity.  However, you may be trading comfort for marketability.  A couple of years ago, the American Sociological Association conducted a study of PhD students in a minority fellowship program to assess where they landed jobs.  Those with white men as their mentors were more likely to secure jobs at Research 1 universities than those with advisers who were women and/or of color.

Racist And Sexist Discrimination In Hiring

Progress has been made in hiring faculty from diverse gender, racial, and ethnic backgrounds.  But, problems remain.  Though outright discrimination is both illegal and harder to get away with, racial and gender bias has found sneakier ways to keep qualified women and people of color out.

For example, an experiment comparing the hireability, competence, and presumed willingness to mentor students of women and men candidates for a a lab manager position found clear gender bias (against women).  And, proposed starting salaries were lower for women candidates, which reflects actual gender gaps in pay.

When scientists judged the female applicants more harshly, they did not use sexist reasoning to do so. Instead, they drew upon ostensibly sound reasons to justify why they would not want to hire her: she is not competent enough. Sexism is an ugly word, so many of us are only comfortable identifying it when explicitly misogynistic language or behavior is exhibited. But this shows that you do not need to use anti-women language or even harbor conscious anti-women beliefs to behave in ways that are effectively anti-women.

And, of course, there is discriminatory treatment even once you are hired:

[T]he report [on sexist discrimination at MIT] documents a pattern of sometimes subtle — but substantive and demoralizing — discrimination in areas from hiring, awards, promotions and inclusion on important committees to allocation of valuable resources like laboratory space and research money.

So, by the time women and people go up for tenure, they may have faced numerous instances of unequal treatment — even the prestige associated with their research and how widely they are cited (especially if they do work on race and/or gender).

But, institutional and external constraints that deter some women from applying for tenure-track jobs exacerbate these practices.  Because (heterosexual) women are still responsible for much of the household labor for their families, women with children are more likely to opt out, instead taking underpaid postdoctoral positions.  Those who do take faculty positions still face penalties for being married and/or having children.

Racist And Sexist Discrimination In Tenure And Promotion

Late last year, a report from an investigation in tenure at the University of Southern California was released, including some very depressing statistics.

The results they procured were staggering. According to her press release, “Since 1998, 92% of white males who were considered for tenure got it.  During the same period of time only 55% percent of women and minority candidates were granted tenure.  Looking at ethnicity alone, USC granted tenure to 81% of its white candidates but only to 48% of its minority candidates.”

I say “very depressing” to describe this pattern because it suggests that one could do everything “right” while on the tenure track — become a publishing machine; minimize how much you challenge students so they will not punish you on evaluations as “incompetent” or “biased”; remain censored, silent, and apolitical — and still be denied tenure if you are a woman and/or a person of color.

Racist And Sexist Climate

Discrimination is not merely the denial of access and opportunities.  It also includes aspects of interpersonal interactions and the institutional climate that can be unwelcoming to women and racial and ethnic minorities.

[A] study based on interviews with 52 underrepresented minority faculty from throughout the university describes areas for attention and improvement in the academic environment, particularly with respect to research isolation, diminished peer recognition and lesser collegiality experienced by some faculty of color.

In an environment where networking and self-promotion are vital to one’s success as a scholar, harassment and hostile interactions serve to keep marginalized faculty “in their place.”  For example, philosophy has recently received some negative attention for rampant sexual harassment by men faculty targeted against women faculty.  And, just like many universities’ failure to protect and seek justice for victims of rape and sexual assault on campus, there appears to be little protection from and recourse for sexual harassment.

No Better, No Worse

I do not write this extensive post on racial and gender harassment and discrimination in academia to demonize colleges and universities.  Rather, I wish to continue to beat the drum that calls for more explicit examination of the areas of bias at various stages in the academy.  Academia is a social institution; as such, it is not immune to realities of the social world beyond the ivory tower.

Many individuals of marginalized backgrounds pursue higher education to improve their social status and fight for change for their communities.  Indeed, college is viewed by many as a possible source of enlightenment, empowerment, and liberation.  While partly true, so, too, is the reality that universities and colleges exhibit the same inequalities of the larger society and actually contribute to them.  But, the relatively small number of women and people of color in university administration limits their potential to create change from the top; the same goes at the department-level because of the disproportionately low numbers of senior professors who are women and racial and ethnic minorities.  Those on the tenure-track (and in graduate school) are politically quarantined for several years, as well.

I call, first, for better efforts to attend to and minimize bias in graduate admission and evaluation, hiring, awards, tenure evaluation, and promotion.  This means becoming attuned to the subtle and covert ways in which bias is plays out.  For example, in hiring, problems with “fit” are often used to justify overlooking women and people of color as job candidates.  There appears to be an incomplete recognition of inequalities in mentorship and publishing that occur during graduate school that then impact one’s marketability when seeking jobs.  I have also heard that some departments make a priori assumptions that candidates of such backgrounds will not seriously consider them if an offer were made, and thus rule them out without waiting to be turned down.   My own university has made great strides in the past few years by requiring search committees to employ a diversity advocate to oversee the hiring practices.

Second, as I noted above, attention to discrimination must extend beyond denial of opportunities and access — those matters of getting in.  Hostile interactions, racist and sexual harassment, avoidance, isolation, and invisibility are also severe impediments to one’s productivity in graduate school and on the tenure-track (and beyond).  These experiences pose problems to one’s health, which can further slow one’s work down.  And, they may steer women and people of color out of academia all together, or toward certain (possibly less prestigious) programs and universities to minimize their exposure.

The problems are certainly complex, but academics are bright enough to better understand and address them.