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Why Are Women of Color in Academia Expected to Do Diversity Work?

Female faculty members of color are disproportionately called upon by both colleagues and students to do diversity, equity, and inclusion work—with no compensation for this labor.

College faculty members are critical in helping American colleges become more diverse, equitable, and inclusive. Professors and instructors not only teach and advise students; they also help institutions make inroads toward equity goals, such as improving graduation rates for underrepresented students by connecting with and serving as role models for students. 

Female faculty members of color in particular are disproportionately called upon by both colleagues and students to do diversity, equity, and inclusion work. While diversity work is often meaningful to them, most faculty members’ workloads and rewards systems are not designed to recognize this labor when it comes to salaries and promotions. This is just one example of how sexism and racism contribute to the persistent lack of female faculty members of color across higher education.

As researchers with the Faculty Workload and Rewards Project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, our team analyzed workloads for 957 faculty members from 22 U.S. colleges and universities. We identified how racial and gender inequalities lead to extra work and less recognition for female faculty members.

The “Identity Tax”

As previous research has shown, White women and faculty members of color recognize that workloads are unfairly distributed among faculty. For example, women are more likely to do work that supports the institution, such as mentoring students, revising the curriculum, or organizing departmental events. However, this work is not generally rewarded in salary and promotion decisions. Male faculty members, on the other hand, are more likely to protect their research time, which is more likely to line up with how they are evaluated. 

Faculty members of color, in particular, pay an “identity tax,” which is exacerbated for women of color. They are asked to do more mentoring for students—especially students of color—as well as leadership and diversity work on campus. While this work is less valued for promotion, faculty members of color express that these responsibilities can give their work special meaning

How To Make Workloads More Transparent

The goal of the Faculty Workload and Rewards Project was not merely to observe workload differences. We also identified a number of changes departments can make to solve these workload inequities. 

One solution is for colleges to make faculty workload measurements and expectations more transparent. 

For example, if women of color among faculty understand workload expectations for their positions in terms of numbers of courses taught, students advised, and committee work done, they are more likely to feel credited for their work. And if, for example, a faculty member is advising eight students when the clear norm is five, she will know she is over-performing and might decline taking on additional students.

Additionally, when women of color work in departments that assign teaching, advising, and administrative work systematically—for example, the department chair asks each faculty member to advise five students—they are less likely to see their work as devalued

In both of these systems, faculty members know their workloads will be linked to how they are rewarded. 

Crediting is another important part of making faculty workloads more equitable. 

Workload equity does not require every faculty member to do the same job. Some faculty members prefer, for example, advising students, and others prefer committee work. Distributing workload equitably is different from distributing workload equally. Equitable workload systems can, for example, substitute more time advising students with less time serving on committees, and vice versa. This approach credits faculty members for their workloads in ways that take into account their preferences and skill sets. 

These are relatively simple fixes, but they can make a difference in how women of color feel about how and whether their workloads are recognized by their colleagues.

“The Can of Worms Is Already Open”

As we worked with departments committed to addressing workload inequities, they compared implementing more transparency with opening a can of worms. Department chairs worry, for example, that faculty members will be more likely to complain that colleagues are not doing their share. Yet the can of worms is already open—and having damaging effects on the careers of female faculty members of color.

This article was originally published by The Conversation. It has been republished here under a creative commons license.

The Conversation

KerryAnn O’Meara is a professor of Higher Education and a Distinguished Scholar-Teacher at the University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP). Her research examines faculty careers and academic rewards systems with a particular focus on organizational practices that support and limit the full participation of women and historically minoritized faculty.
Dawn Culpepper is the Associate Director and an Assistant Research Professor at the University of Maryland’s ADVANCE Program for Inclusive Excellence. Dr. Culpepper’s research broadly examines diversity, equity, and inclusion in the academic workplace.
Audrey J. Jaeger is W. Dallas Herring Professor at NC State University. Examining relationships and experiences among faculty and students in postsecondary institutions, her research illuminates issues of transition, access, equity, climate, agency and community engagement.
Alexandra Kuvaeva was a research assistant for the ADVANCE program and recently earned her PhD in International education policy at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Joya Misra is a professor of Sociology & Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her research and teaching primarily focus on social inequality, including inequalities by gender and gender identity, race, ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, citizenship, parenthood status, and educational level.

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