Status of Black Women in the Academy on International Women’s Day

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Jeudi 8 mars 2012

Njoki N. Wane, University of Toronto
Guest contributor

“Despite some notable progress in the past decade towards greater diversity, the Canadian academy remains largely white and male,” according to a recent CAUT Educational Review. Further, the 2006 “Census data shows an ongoing underrepresentation of women, First Nations, and visible minority professors, as well as significant earnings and unemployment gaps for many of these groups.”

The research data shows three interrelated inequities that reflect gendered and racial social hierarchies: first, an underrepresentation of visible minorities and particularly Black scholars in the academy; second, a racial hierarchy in which Black women professors are underrepresented and experience higher rates of underemployment; and, third, the existence of  colour-coded pay inequities including an earnings gap of between 10 to 20 percent. In some instances these inequities may result from intentional practices, in other instances they result from unconscious biases or, as the CAUT Review notes, “they are the by-product of university employment and salary structures and procedures which have the effect of discriminating against certain groups.” In a recent study “glass ceilings and sticky floors,” Margaret Yap and Alison Konrad found a similar pattern in the corporate sector, which helps to explain why there are so few women in positions of leadership and why there are even fewer Black women and women of colour in corporate (and academic) leadership. After controlling for age and experience their study found both a gendered and a racial hierarchy in promotions as follows: white men, white women, visible minority men and visible minority women. They conclude: “the rates of promotion of white men at all levels, from entry-level to middle managers to leaders, were consistently higher. On average, men were 4.5 per cent more likely to receive promotions than white females, 7.9 per cent more likely than minority males and 16.1 per cent more likely than minority females.”

 As women of colour and particularly Black women in the academy reflecting on this International Women’s Day (IWD) 2012 some important questions come to mind: What does it mean to inhabit the institutional space of higher education at this moment in history?  How is my story as a Black woman in Canada similar or different from the earlier experiences of Black women from Africa or the Caribbean? Over the years, Black intellectuals, poets, writers, film-makers and musicians have documented the double burden of racism and sexism on the lives of Black women and their continuing struggles for equality. The National Film Board’s documentary by Dionne Brand and Ginny Stikeman, “Sisters in the Struggle” offers one lens on these experiences, as works such as Maureen Elgersman, Unyielding Spirits; Dionne Brand’s Bread Out of Stone; Makeda Silvera’s Silenced: Caribbean Domestic Workers Talk; Rosemary Sadlier, Leading the Way; and Karen Flynn’s Moving Beyond Borders. What is the meaning of our stories for those Black and minority youth, and immigrant and newcomers who are aspiring to be teachers and researchers in Canadian institutions of higher learning? Within the academy, how do we as Black women intellectuals negotiate the unequal relations of power in which our bodies and the bodies of knowledge about us are “included,” even as we operate from the margins of the academy? How do we measure our accomplishments and gains as we Celebrate IWD 2012? Certainly there are many Black Canadian women who have achieved outstanding success and global recognition for their contributions to a more just Canada. There are many illustrious examples to be celebrated, including historical figures such as Marie-Joseph Angélique, Harriet Tubman, Mary Ann Shadd, Mary Bibb, and Viola Desmond, as well as renown contemporary public figures such as former Governor General Michaëlle Jean, Ontario Fairness Commissioner Jean Augustine,  Zanana Akande, Glenda Sims and Quebec Judge Juanita Westmoreland-Traore. Reflections specifically on the questions of Black women in the academy led me to revisit my research findings – in Theorizing Empowerment: Canadian Perspective on Black Feminist Thought and in Back to the Drawing Board: African Canadian Feminisms – on Black Canadian feminist thought. One purpose of these research projects was to try and think through and make sense of a feminism that is both Canadian and articulated from the perspective of Black women. What struck me as I interviewed Black women was the fact that many of them simply wanted to talk about the issues that mattered to them, that they are rarely consulted on, and then link it to feminism and the struggle for equality and justice. Most of the women interviewed identified as feminists because of the values they espoused and the kind of activist work they engage in in order to achieve women’s equality, dignity and human rights. One question that animated me, and I posed to those I interviewed, was this: How do we theorize our own experiences and develop a coherent theory that speaks to our heterogeneous histories, cultures, and experiences as Black women of the African Diaspora? How do we generate our own praxis that builds on our own historical, experiential and educational standpoints? Black women in the academy historically, as today, are challenged to resist invisibility, annihilation and social inequities. What strategies do we employ to challenge invisibility or how our voices may be silenced or our perspectives trivialized in the academy? The answers to these questions are complex and each person who reads them may have a different answer. These questions are meant to generate a discussion. These questions are meant as a productive guide to explorations of the complex nature of our experiences in the academy and in the broader society. The task of foregrounding the voices and excavating the histories of traditionally muted subjects is by no means an easy one. From my interviews with Black women across Canada it was clear that many have made progressive steps to ensure that their voices are heard. Many, however, also feel shut out of the academy. With the introduction of particular disciplines in the academy – such as women and gender studies, and ethnic and antiracist studies – greater strides have been made to ensure that the histories and issues of marginalized groups are studied and taken up in classroom discussions. These contested spaces continue to provide sites for historically silenced people. As well, such spaces and the challenges they pose to the academy include the development of critical knowledge and, at the same time, a critique of knowledge itself. Many of the women I interviewed reflected upon the ways in which oppositional conversations and critical scholarship have troubled the notion of objectivity, teasing out the standpoints and perspectives of knowledge claims made by those in dominant and subaltern social positions. The knowledges of marginalized groups, whether Black people or first peoples, have been subjugated and too often rendered invisible in teaching, research and scholarship in Canada. The invisibility Black women in the academy, as well as in mainstream discourse, speaks to the continuing potency of Euro-patriarchal practices and knowledge production and their  enduring impact on structuring the possibilities and limits of inclusion. Challenging social inequality in employment, income and promotion, as well as educational inequities are essential if we are to resist the invisibility of Black women and scholars of colour in the Canadian academy. Like many women scholars, Black women who enter the world of academia experience a tug-of-war in their efforts to balance professional, family and community service responsibilities.  The research on the status of women in the academy clearly shows that women spend more time teaching, mentoring, engaged in service and administration than their male counterparts. As with other women, the lack of work-life-balance, and the unequal distribution of mentoring and service work, presents a challenge for the advancement of Black women who want to pursue an academic career. Collegiality fosters a sense of community as well as an atmosphere of creativity and innovation in which people can share ideas, collaborate, and generally benefit from working together. For many Black women this essential ingredient of collegiality is missing from their professional experience. Although there are some notable exceptions, most Black women tend not to be included in collaborative research projects with their peers; they often lack role models and sponsorship and mentoring opportunities; and have less access to sources for research. As well, Black women scholars may face hostile work environments in which their voices are dismissed and their research devalued, especially if they focus on matters of importance to Black people in Canada and the Diaspora. Black women working in the academy have voiced their concerns about the exclusionary nature of dominant theories, including the growing body of critical social theories. Although many ‘critical’ social theories concern themselves with what is, prima facie, progressive content, on closer examination their own politics often-replicate existing social hierarchies. Black feminist theory has been instrumental in illuminating the contradictions in critical social theories that claim to be oppositional but function to reproduce and reinforce existing social hierarchies. Much of what is now regarded as critical theory repositions viewpoints within the context of professional politics inside the academy rather than also creating linkages between equality struggles both within the academy and the broader society. Although there are more Black women and women of colour in the academy than three decades ago, the question to ask is this:  Have the status and the lived experiences of Black women and women of colour significantly changed?  If the answer is ‘no,’ as the research suggests, then we need to reflect on a different set of questions: What are the institutional and cultural biases, barriers and obstacles that continue to inhibit the advancement of Black women and women of colour in Canada? What do we need to do differently in order to achieve a more equitable and just academy and society for diverse women? As one report recently noted, equity matters when it comes to the status of women, and particularly Black women and women of colour, in the academy.

Njoki N. Wane is the Special Advisor on Women’s Issues at the University of Toronto, and a professor in the department of Sociology and Equity Studies in Education and the director of the Office of Teaching Support at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) of the University of Toronto.


Gender equityStatus of women in the academyEquity and diversity


Thank you for challenigng us to 'make it personal' in reflecting upon these questions as to barriers, biases, and obstacles. This discussion is so important not only for International Women's Day, but all year long. As a PhD student and woman of colour in Canada who has been hearing these stories all her life, I have come to realize that I must form alliances and seek out mentors, push every boundary, and leave no 'stone unturned'. Thank you for being a role model in how to create those safe spaces to have conversations, and for challenging social justice and inequality to expand the boundary for new voices by accepting your latest advisory role. Congratulations.