SALDAÑA: Promoting diversity and dialogue

Academia is hard. The graduate school application process alone requires networking skills worthy of any financial or consulting hopeful. A senior project requires a summer’s worth of data and a year’s worth of writing and editing. Candidates must crawl into bed with a dissertation topic and get very, very intimate with it for a very long time. Like many elite spaces, academic circles are governed by a strict set of unspoken rules that every graduate student must learn to navigate.

And on top of that, the academy is frequently incredibly hostile to women and people of color. Recently, some academics have stepped forward to publish entire anthologies of horror stories of sexual misconduct, disrespect, discrimination, racism, sexism, homophobia, intellectual theft and other aggressions from elite institutions across the country. Yet these stories do not appear in mass media, nor are they part of the debates on affirmative action, the gender wage gap or education reform.

As someone who wants a career in academia, I am well-aware of the risks of the job. As a woman of color, I am also aware that those issues are exacerbated by subtle and overt racism and sexism. So, when I got an email about Monday’s Women’s Faculty Forum (WFF) panel discussion on women and diversity in the academy, I was curious about Yale’s role in this debate.

The panel included faculty and administrators involved with increasing gender, racial and ethnic diversity at Yale. But the composition of the panel was itself a red flag. Although there were several women, there were only three people of color. There were no East Asian or Latin@ faculty, no black or Latina women and one woman of color. It was not an auspicious start.

The discussion opened with a quick overview of the statistics for diversity at Yale. Allison Tait, the postdoctoral associate who wrote the diversity report, candidly told the audience that diversity at Yale “does not look good.” University-wide, women make up less than a quarter of tenured faculty. More disturbingly, the report included very little information on race and ethnicity. A full 86 percent of Yale’s faculty is white; men of color make up 10 percent, and women of color — a category which includes East Asian, South Asian, Black, Latin@, Native and mixed women – make up the last four.

Yale is not unique in hosting a primarily white male faculty. Elite spaces, from Congress to billionaires clubs, are densely populated with white men. This panel sought to address some of the unique reasons why that disparity exists at Yale.

Roughly equal numbers of men and women complete undergraduate degrees, begin graduate school and actually finish a Ph.D. However, the vast majority of women don’t make it into postdoctoral positions, and can’t find assistant professorships or get tenure-track jobs. Thus, we see discrepancies between male and female tenured faculty members.

According to the panel, the lack of postdoctoral offers is less a matter of women’s inability to find positions, but the consequence of women simply not applying. Absence of mentors, family commitments, industry pressures, sexual misconduct, weak support systems and institutional culture were offered as potential explanations. A combination of all of these possibilities likely factors into the decision-making process. Possible solutions include better mentoring, improved child care and better training to help new professors negotiate for higher wages. Seems reasonable.

Institutional overhaul is always difficult. Given its constraints, I commend the administration; it has implemented important policies to address the issue.

However, discussions of race were painfully and noticeably absent from the panel. One audience member asked about the administration’s strategies for making people of color feel more welcome, citing stories of colleagues who felt alienated by the atmosphere here. Two white panelists “answered” before Paul Turner, the first tenured African-American in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, finally spoke up about the importance of supporting new faculty of color. I can’t imagine how two white administrators could answer a question about an experience that they couldn’t possibly have lived through while silencing a black professor who was sitting two seats away.

Similar situations happen daily here. That’s racism. It’s subtle, more insidious and not at all intentional. Fixing it requires honesty, self-reflection and a willingness to admit to wrongdoing. We must proactively include people in our community, and that can mean the difference between a new black woman in biological sciences and another white male faculty member. But, until we open a real, honest and probably painful discussion about active inclusivity in the academy, we’re not really talking about diversity.

Eb Saldaña is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at elizabeth.saldana@yale.edu . 

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