Monday, January 14, 2019

Career barriers, part 5: Cross-racial mentorship in a segregated academy

By an anonymous graduate student

We all face career barriers, and while every situation is unique, we also have much in common. This series of guest posts highlights stories and advice from a diverse group of people who have confronted a wide variety of career barriers. Hopefully this post helps you to feel less alone in your struggle, gives you advice for moving forward, or allows you to help someone around you.

I was a junior in college when I decided that I wanted to be a professor. I was hooked on the thrill of working to solve a fascinating biological problem. I spent nights and weekends at the bench without feeling like I was making a sacrifice. I had found my professional home and would work to earn the intellectual freedom of a faculty position. It would take a decade of perseverance, creativity, luck and a supportive network, but I finally knew what I wanted. At the time, I could not see myself aiming for anything else.

In part due to naiveté, I did not think to look up demographic data on faculty in the biological sciences. Of course, I knew that African-Americans were underrepresented in STEM, but I underestimated the severity of the problem. It was in graduate school that I learned only 0.7% of biology professors nationwide are Black or African-American. Considering the fact that 12% of Americans are Black, it would take a 17-fold increase in the number of Black faculty to reach a number representative of the general population. Surely, diversity officers and enlightened faculty were trying to understand and address this problem? It would take me another year to conclude that, despite paying regular lip service to diversity, faculty and administrators did not seem to consider racial exclusion to be a problem at all.

Academic twitter is full of threads about career barriers based on gender, race and class. STEM faculty, in particular, appear to have woken up to these barriers in recent years. To me, the most revealing aspect of this newfound “wokeness” is the amount of attention given to racial and gender inequities relative to the magnitude of each disparity. Take the life sciences, for instance. Women are underrepresented as PIs, especially at the level of full professors and department chairs. Overall, women make up only 30% of biology professors. This is a serious problem that requires our attention, but it pales in comparison to racial disparities. Progressive-minded faculty who are vocal about gender inequity in STEM are typically silent about race. Most of these faculty likely don't know the numbers, nor are they concerned about not having a single Black or Latinx professor in their departments, professional networks, or seminar series.

While gender inequity in STEM is correctly understood to be an engineered phenomenon that must be actively reversed, racial disparities are seen as part of the natural order, not worth discussing or challenging. From time to time, it becomes necessary to condemn explicit racism like that of James Watson, but good liberal professors who have inherited Watson’s segregated academy must never be asked to look in the mirror. It is acceptable to diversify trainees, but never colleagues. "We don't get qualified minority applicants for job openings," they claim, somehow forgetting that it is their job to help make qualified applicants from all backgrounds.

The structural barriers limiting the educational success of students from marginalized communities, starting as early as pre-school, have been thoroughly documented. Despite these barriers, the near-total absence of Black faculty cannot be explained by unequal representation in the academic pipeline. Underrepresented minorities have made significant gains over the past three decades in earning PhDs in the life sciences. However, this has not translated into a more diverse professoriate. A candid account to explain this phenomenon comes from Dr. MarybethGasman, who stated, “The reason we don’t have more faculty of color among college faculty is that we don’t want them. We simply don’t want them.” The more time I spend around professors, the more I accept Gasman’s assessment. I have come to conclude that White faculty, with rare exceptions, prefer their departments as segregated as their neighborhoods and social circles - not all white mind you (that wouldn’t have the right look), but with just a few “acceptable” minorities, preferably from privileged backgrounds.

Both success and mental health in academia rely heavily on quality of mentorship. The preference for homogenous professional spaces influences mentorship habits, which is where it becomes a problem for aspiring scientists from historically marginalized backgrounds. The literature on mentorship distinguishes between two functions of a mentor: instrumental (skill development, career guidance, etc.) and psychosocial (concern for mentees’ well-being, building confidence, forming relationships, etc.). According to mentorship research, one determinant of an advisor’s investment as a mentor is the degree to which the advisor sees himself or herself in each trainee. This is particularly true with respect to the psychosocial role, which is facilitated by the effortless interpersonal comfort of a homogeneous pair in this deeply segregated society. In the absence of conscious effort to overcome racial biases, faculty help to reproduce the White academy by investing in trainees who look like them, or share other key aspects of their background, while at the same time decrying the dearth of colleagues of color.

The problem I discuss here is enormous and persistent. It will not go away anytime soon. Perhaps that is why so many professors avoid discussing it. Or perhaps avoiding the issue is the easiest way to maintain the status quo. Neither avoidance nor feigning ignorance will lead to a solution. And above all, we need to discard the myth that time will magically heal all inequities. As much as we all love to bash President Trump and James Watson, things have not improved in our corner since the 80’s, and the first step is to acknowledge the possibility that we might not be as innocent as we would like to think. The second step is to figure out how to talk about the problem without instinctively getting defensive. As I have seen in my own university, the few Black PIs out there are in too precarious a position to seriously advocate for racial inclusion, since they have to worry about punishment for offending their White colleagues’ sensibilities. White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo is an excellent resource, especially if you find yourself offended by anything I have said here. As for improving cross-racial mentorship, the concerned reader can begin diving into the literature here and here. Unless those with power take initiative to change their fields, departments, and mentorship habits, “diversity” will remain a code word for tokenism, and Watson’s vision of a segregated academy will persist in my generation.