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Excerpt from the Plenary Panel "Strategies for Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling"

November 16-17, 2007
Johnson C. Smith University
Charlotte, North Carolina

Excerpts from the Plenary Panel

Speaker: e. Frances White, Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs, New York University

Today I will talk briefly about three strategies and one principal for dealing with the glass ceiling. First, however, I want to change our image of the glass ceiling. We tend to think of our careers as a stairway that reaches up until we bump our heads on a static ceiling and we go no further. I propose instead that we think of the glass ceiling as part of a computer game. As we wind our way up the steps, we have to avoid barriers and survive our own inevitable mistakes that limit our progress. If we have really bad luck-say, we end up at a place that is hostile to junior faculty or people from different cultures-or we make too many mistakes-say, we don't spend enough time on our publications-or some combination of the two, the glass ceiling lowers into place and stops our progress.

The three strategies and one principle that I'll discuss today relate to a dynamic glass ceiling whose fall into place we strive to avoid. I'll start with a strategy I learned at the beginning of my career as a faculty member at an urban research university. As you heard in the introduction, I earned a doctorate in African History with a focus on African women. Like most newly minted Ph.D.'s, I took myself very seriously, and I went off to my first academic job thinking everybody else would take me seriously. I have to tell you, by the second faculty meeting, I found myself back on the job market looking for another position. Now, you may think that was a hasty decision, but my scan of my environment and advise from my mentors, led me to this conclusion.

I had a dual appointment in history and Black Studies departments. At my first meeting with the chair of the history department, I was told, "Oh no! We won't be listing your courses in the history catalogue." Apparently, the thought that Africa had a history worth teaching didn't translate to this chair even in the late 1970s. As a naive young faculty member, I found this attitude so confusing that I did not even protest or ask why I had been hired in the first place if my work wasn't to be taken seriously. I remember leaving the chair's office dumbfounded.

I found my work as a scholar dismissed in a very different way in the Black Studies department. This was a highly political department with close ties to the surrounding black community. The first request from the department chair was for me to cook rice for an up-coming community event. Again, as a budding academic, I was shocked. I did have the presence of mind to deny any ability to cook. I knew that the male colleague who joined the department at the same time was asked to speak at the community meeting and that I needed to guard against accepting a “woman's role.”

My dual experiences in these two departments made me question my future as an academic and led me to Strategy #1 for avoiding glass ceilings: Scan your environment and make a realistic evaluation of whether it is time to move on or not. This realistic look has to be taken in conjunction with Strategy #2: use mentors judiciously. There is a vast literature on mentoring, some of which warns us to look beyond our own ethnic and gender backgrounds for mentors. I believe that people should have more than one mentor. These should include someone with whom you can identify closely, if at all possible, and others who have had very different experiences. I want to say something that is often overlooked in discussions of cross-cultural mentorships. You may have to spend time educating those mentors, and this is something people often miss.

For example, when I was at Hampshire College I found many, many fabulous mentors who took my work seriously and recognized me early on, but I had to tell my white mentors what it was like to be a young black professor to whom the students of color looked for guidance and support. Students were sometimes making demands on me that made it difficult for me to have time to do other service. I also had to explain to my male mentors what it was like to have requests of me for service that just would not be made of men, and then would not even be noticed when done. Being mentored isn't a passive activity. When possible, you should help your mentors understand the context in which you live as a way of helping them help you.

Strategy #3 is that you should be willing to make challenging moves. That is, you should be willing to challenge the status quo; but you have to do so wisely. I am thinking of two experiences that I had while I was the dean at the Gallatin School at NYU, one of which was more successful than the other. I would say the one that was not so successful was essentially losing my temper and actually speaking with a small group of faculty about institutional racism at the school at a time when the faculty were not ready to hear that from me. I do not blame myself for having done what I needed to do emotionally at that moment, but it was not the wisest political thing to do. The second example was more successful and better calculated. By the time my faculty put forward the fifth job candidate in a row to me to fill vacancies who looked just like the majority of them in background, ideology, and ethnicity - “fit like a glove” - they would say - I intervened as the dean to suspend a search, saying, "this is a search which is emblematic of what you have been doing; that is to say, “you are looking for people who look like you and who feel familiar. With this approach, we'll never reach our stated goal of diversifying the faculty. You have to go back and develop a diverse pool of candidates.” That was a move that I took that lost me some allies and created resentment for having exposed their behavior as institutional racism. But the time called for me to do this kind of intervention and our record of hiring faculty of color moved to 50%.

So those are my three strategies: make a realistic analysis of your environment and change jobs if necessary; be an active participant in the mentoring relationship; and challenge the status quo but do it wisely. My one principal, closely related to Strategy #3, is "to thine own self be true." This principle relates not only to a willingness to make challenging moves but also a willingness to be your self and to refuse taking certain strategies. In my own case there is a kind of lavender ceiling that I know I face. As far as I am aware, there are no out, black, lesbian college or university presidents, and I am unlikely to be the first, but the alternative for me of living in the closet is a strategy that I would never employ. Sometimes we have to be willing to say, “Well, that is about as far as I want to go, because this is how I want to be in my life.”

The language and the literature around breaking the glass ceilings seems to me to be too much about “we have to do whatever it takes to avoid that trapping ceiling.” Instead, I would argue, we should maintain our principles as we wind our way up the career ladder. Thank you.

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