The slippery slope of diversity and inclusion

If you have been on the academic job market recently you may have been asked to submit a statement of diversity and inclusion, or something similar, detailing not just your philosophy surrounding diversity but what you plan to do in your role to increase diversity at your institution.

Increasing diversity and inclusion can be a nebulous concept and many point to their support of women and POC in academia. Often times this support includes things like nominating minorities for committees or leadership positions, presumably providing opportunities for underrepresented groups to have their voices heard and affect change in their institutions. But what do these types of actions result in?

In the United States, women and POC have made great strides in representation in STEM, particularly in the life sciences. Gains have not been consistent across races, however, and white females still outnumber blacks and hispanics. This under-representation paints a typical picture: a department mainly filled with white males and females, with a single POC present. These white males and females are encouraged to “increase diversity” and, in doing so, nominate this single POC for all positions. All committees. All leadership positions.

Scientific American, “Diversity in Science: Where Are the Data?” October 1, 2014.

This creates a major problem that is fed by another academic issue: the fact that service is not as valued as research and teaching. We actually do a disservice to underrepresented groups this way. We ask them to do all the emotional labor of participating on committees and acting in these leadership roles, mentoring additional students, and, in general, take on many more responsibilities. In doing so we are also asking them to spend less time on the things that we actually do value in the academic system: research and teaching.

We already know that women and POC take on a larger burden of emotional labor in academia. And, even if we make an effort to balance the requirements of mentoring and advising among genders and races, there are still large disparities in terms of the type and intensity of emotional labor expected.

These are multi-faceted issues and do not have a silver bullet answer. The first issue is not easily changed. Academia still is a masculine environment, even in departments and colleges that are typically inhabited by women. Just because the College of Nursing has vastly more women and POC doesn’t mean they don’t still follow rules set by men at the top and these men at the top keep the traditional value systems (research dollars and teaching evaluations) in place. This happens by ignoring the science in place that clearly shows a connection between mental health and college success. If we truly care about the success of our students and setting them up for careers, we should also care about their mental health. Can we really call ourselves research institutions if we ignore the glaring research that says we’re doing it wrong? Campuses are pouring money into amenities and facilities while counseling centers are stretched beyond thin and under-paid adjuncts (disproportionately represented by women) are acting, essentially, as untrained counselors. These issues are deeply ingrained and widespread across all campus types in the country. Attention to the mental health crisis in universities has grown and has been followed by strides by some to increase services on campus. Basically, we are already asking too much of our underrepresented groups in terms of emotional labor on campus.

The second issue is easier to deal with than the first. Namely, that white men and women need to take into account the actual needs of minorities before simply nominating them for any and every position in the university. Just like you would for yourself, consider what gains the nominated individual actually stands to gain from participating. Counter this with how much time you think would be expended (and then probably add additional time onto that expectation). Consider opportunities that directly contribute to the traditionally valued systems in academia. Does this opportunity make them eligible for a teaching or research award? Will it help them get a grant funded in the future? Or is it simply another committee and another time commitment that will drain their time to spend on other activities?

Consider these things the next time you get a Qualtrics email asking who should serve on the next departmental committee to serve office food.

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