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Women of Color Higher Education and the Struggle to be Accepted

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 3076 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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For centuries women of color have been looked down on and treated inferior to men and women of different ethnicities. According to McCluskey “Black women were doubly stigmatized as a result of the legacy of sexual exploitation endured by their mothers and grandmothers under slavery” (1997) Unfortunately that legacy graced upon them and the stereotype that women were nothing more than mere homemakers, baby makers, and slaves led the way to the unfair treatment and inequality that they face today. The outright disregard for women of color is seen in various career fields however it is more widespread in the field of academia in predominately white institutions of higher education. According to Kevin Miller (2018) “The decision makers who guide colleges are predominantly white men, not women, nor men of color, and especially not women of color.” The question is not how and why did we get here as a people because that answer is simple. The AAUW (American Association of University Women) may have been on to something when they stated that “systems of oppression place a series of obstacles in the way of black women’s educations and careers to hinder their progress toward success (2018).The statement speaks volumes as women of color have been oppressed since the beginning of time yet how can this issue of sexism and gender discrimination be rectified so that women of color are treated equally and afforded the same opportunities.

The research questions that are guiding my research are as follows:

  1. What incidents occurred that stood out in the history of education for women of color?
  2. Who are some of the famous or well-known women of color that paved the way and made difference in the field of higher education?
  3. What are the current issues in higher education as it pertains to women of color?
  4. What is the percentage of women of color versus other races/genders in lucrative positions in Higher Education?
  5. What are ways to change the state of inequality for women of color in higher education?

Incidents in the History of Education for Women of Color

 For women the fight to be treated equal started back in the early 1700’s when their rights to vote were taken away and the world was filled with gender discrimination, racism, sexism, and hate. Minorities in that era particularly women of color were still being sold as property as the privileged people were allotted the opportunity to strive in school and in life. Nevertheless despite the racial disparities going on in the world Mary McLeod Bethune, Miss Nannie Helen Burroughs, Lucy Craft Laney, and Charlotte Hawkins Brown worked hard to make sure that black girls and women were educated. As the first post slavery generation of black educated women these women dedicated their lives to building educational institute’s that would/did demonstrate what black women could do (McCluskey, 1997). Even in death their work lives on and can be seen in organizations such as the NCNW (National Coalition of Negro Women).Thanks to their works many black girls and women were educated.

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However even with that forward movement cases such as brown vs board and the little rock nines experiences which consisted of six young black girls showed that the world view on education was still very much tainted. While the civil rights act of 1964 aimed to put an end to segregation, gender discrimination still remained an issue for women of color. One activist in particular Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1970’s stated that “gender equality was not a given, but had to be fought for” . In addition to the work of early educators and women’s civil rights activists sororities also played an important part in the forward movement of the women of color. Sororities were founded at a time in history when gender discrimination and gender roles were being challenged (Johnson, n.d.). Sororities were formed due to the fact that women of color weren’t openly accepted on college campuses and definitely not allowed to be a part of Greek letter sororities that were predominantly white.

In an effort to beat the odds and destined to become leaders, nine women stood strong and formed the first African American sorority in 1908 which was the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority (Johnson, n.d.). Soon after the founding of AKA five other sororities were founded Delta Sigma Theta Sorority (Howard University, 1913), Zeta Phi Beta Sorority (Howard University, 1920), and Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority (Butler University, 1922) (Johnson, n.d.).  It had always been hard for women of color to feel empowered, encouraged, and even accepted as intellectually adept that’s why sororities were and still are an important part of the educational history of the women of color. Sororities are sisterhoods and I believe that many women of color survived, thrived and became great leaders as a result of the “Divine Nine” Sororities. Today many famous and notable college grads that pledged have went on to become doctors, lawyers, and successful members and leaders of academia/higher education.

Women in History that Paved the Way

Although there has been much adversityfor women of color in academia they remained steadfast pushing past the obstacles and finding their rightful place. One of the first women of color to obtain tenure was Dr. Sarah Jane Early Woodson.  Woodson became the first African American to be hired as a professor in the year 1858 at Wilberforce University in Ohio where she taught English and Latin; she is also the first African American to ever teach at an HBCU. Dr. Merze Tate is also a phenomenal black women in the history of academia. Dr. Tate is the first African American to receive a PhD from Harvard University in 1941, and the first black women to be hired in the History department as a Professor. According to Katacharin (2017) Dr. Tate fought vigorously against the gender discrimination and wage inequality she experienced throughout her tenure at Harvard University. Dr. Tate continued her teaching and research with Harvard until she retired in the year of 1977. In the year of 1979 after a decade long fight to overturn the racial covenant put into place at Rice University Dr. Beverly Harris Schenz became the first African American faculty/professor of German Studies. From there she continued her career as the dean of undergrad affairs and the associate professor of German Studies at the University of Pittsburg (Slater, 1998). These amazing women made great strides and paved the way for women professors that would come.

From the early 1800’s up to today there have been many great females and leaders in academia that continue to thrive. Some of the notable women of color that are professors are as follows:

Percentage of Women of Color Faculty/Staff in Higher Education

The percentage of women in higher education who has obtained faculty/tenure positions or higher has increased, however not on a level where one can truly say that the problem of inclusion and diversity has been solved. The fact still remains that women of color are still highly underrepresented in academia. Between 1980 and 1993 the number of black women who obtained doctorate degrees increased to 33.4 % which naturally increased the number of faculty that were African American women. (Aguirre, 2000). Unfortunately for women of color the reality is that they make up the lowest ranks of professor or higher by gender in the United States.

 According to the NCES (national center for educational statistics website there are a total of 1.5 million faculty members (professors, associate professors, assistant professors etc.) currently employed by post-secondary institutions in the United States with 53 percent being fulltime faculty and 47 percent part-time. Of the 1.5 million faculty members currently employed in academia, and looking at the women mentioned above who have made strides in the field of higher education one would think that at the least 40% of faculty would be women of color. However the number is nowhere even close with a total of 3% faculty being that of women of color. The U.S Department of Education, National Center for Education Integrated Postsecondary Data System published a table in December of 2017 breaking down the number of faculty by race and gender as of 2016. According to the data published there are 310,326 white males, 264,968 white females, 19, 128 black males, and 25,425 black females employed as a lecturer or higher in academia.

A further break down of the numbers show that although there are roughly 25,000 or 3% of black women working in higher education only 2,817 of them are professors. That number alone shows that as of 2016 there is still very much a problem with higher education institutions diversifying their faculty. A closer look at the statistics of women in higher education shows that  4,775 are associate professors, 6,932 are assistant professors,  4,627 are instructors, 1,139 are lecturers, and 5,135 are listed as other (PEDS, 2017). Although many women of color have found success working as faculty or higher many have simply just settled for work in the educational sector as support staff/other.


Current Issues

With the increase in the number of women of color graduating with a PhD, there should be an increase seen in the number of women professors and administrators in the field of higher education. Unfortunately (1) organizational barriers that disproportionately rely on them for student mentoring activities and other types of work that are not rewarded in department evaluations; (2) a colder institutional climate that devalues their presence and contribution to campus life; (3) less respect for and recognition of their research from colleagues and the larger administration; (4) a lack of knowledge about the unwritten rules that govern university life; (5) and lack of access to career support from knowledgeable mentors.



Ways to Change the State of Inequality in Higher Education for Women of Color

 For women of color marginalization in academia will continue as institutions continue to see them through the lens of a black and white camera. Thomas and Hollenshead (2001) state that black women faculty are marginalized when they are ‘‘forced, either covertly or overtly, to compromise their gender and/or racial/ethnic identities and when their white colleagues hold unrealistic expectations, insisting that they be shining examples of their group and somehow different from other Blacks and other women’’ (p. 167). 

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The unrealistic expectations and stereotypes placed upon women of color in academia can really become a burden after time as some women begin to doubt their intellectual abilities and question whether they belong. In an article titled “The university is not your home: lived experiences of a Black woman in academia” Thandokazi Maseti stated that “The constant questioning of belonging in these institutions has been the isolating burden of my blackness, especially as a woman (Maseti, 2018). The diversity and inclusion of black women faculty is much needed in higher education. No more should students only be taught from one perspective, the knowledge and intellectual abilities of the women of color is needed to bring a different outlook to the students, more ideas to the institution, and more diversity to the faculty.

While I am sure that there are many methods or ways to change the state of academia as it pertains to the diversification and inclusion of the African American female. A well-known phrase sums up what must first be done to move pass the issue at state “admitting that you have a problem is the first step in solving the problem” (Ziglar, n.d.). I do not believe that the decision makers in higher education believe that there is a problem, and until they see a problem things are not going to change. According to Mainah (2016) “acknowledging the historical nature of racial bias and White privilege in the United States of America is important however the issue of racism is woven into its systems and general culture and passes unnoticed by those not affected by it”.  Unfortunately so individuals that are not affected by the lack of cultural diversity and the people who are dealing with it will never understand the magnitude.

Aside from recognizing that there is a problem, university presidents and administration can work together towards positive change by incorporating diversity and inclusion initiatives such as stepping away from “quotas”. The hiring of women of color and other minorities should be seen as a need and not as forced to meet a number that would make it seem as if diversifying of faculty is important. According to Dr. Jackson of Duke University “there must be a commitment to diversity by the entire institution and that administrators need to ask themselves, “How serious are you about the hiring in these institutions?” and then go on to implement policies that reinforce that commitment to diversity” (Arnet, 2015). Another method would be to change the hiring process and requirements, such as selecting candidates on the basis of knowledge and expertise and not based on where they received their PhD. Lastly and most importantly changes in mindset or institutional bias would greatly change the state of diversity and inclusion for women of color in academia. According to Demerris Brooks-Immel “As long as socially constructed notions of race and whiteness continue to define ‘normal’ in our institutions, they will also perpetuate privilege” (2016). As I’ve stated several times women of color are being marginalized and discriminated against based off of their history and treatment back in the days of slavery. Although women of color could not control such occurrences it is high time that the mindset of the privileged, the decision makers, administrators, and fellow faculty see them as they see themselves. Women of color are intelligent, educated, worthy and a benefit as professors and administrators for both white and minority students.



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