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Front and Center: Women and Underrepresented Minorities in Communications

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

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Goucher College


Women and minorities are resilient because they need to face and overcome barriers constructed by society. The challenges they encounter on a regular basis include, but are not limited to, institutionalized racism, sexism, and obstacles that prevent access to social and economic networks and professional opportunities.  Moreover, women and minorities often must battle dominant ideologies about womanhood, femininity and sexuality, most of which are based on racist, sexist, classist, and outdated ideas about women of all races.  Additionally, the inextricable link between race, class, and gender complicates the experiences of women and minorities in society, particularly women of color. It is this precarious link that begs for meaningful exploration in a variety of venues, particularly academia.

In order to examine the role of women and minorities in communications, it is important to retain the history of their experiences in academia and society as a reference point.  Women and minorities, particularly women of color and poor women, reside at the margins of society. Although the oppression of women is a universal reality, the types of oppression differ greatly, depending on other social and economic factors, including race, religion and class.  Women of color are often “othered” in research, so it is important to keep in mind that when we examine women as a group, that group is made up of many distinct individual and collective experiences.

It is critical to give voice to the existence of significant groups of women that have traditionally been “othered” or marginalized, such as African Americans, Latinas, Asians, Eastern Europeans, Africans, West Indians, and Middle Eastern women. This paper will primarily focus on the experiences of African American women, which is the research concentration of the author.  However, it is important to remember the role that race and class play in the experiences of women in academia. Capitalism is the economic lifeline of America, and it requires a working class to sustain itself.  It is upon the shoulders of the lower class that the American Dream stands – shoulders that are largely black or brown, female, and poor.  To equate capitalism with a building, it is architecturally impossible for a building to stand when the foundation lacks support.  The prospect of the collapse of the teetering building creates a tension that is both real and imagined, resulting in a marginal space that is defined by unpredictability.  Unpredictability is the key characteristic of the experiences of women in society and in academia based on these mitigating factors. This unpredictable, marginalized space thus shapes the experiences of women in academia and society as a whole.

Most research that has been conducted on women and minorities in academia has focused on their representation in the sciences. Research has indicated that there is insufficient data concerning women in the humanities.  Furthermore, communications is a broad category of study that can encompass many disciplines.  They include mass media, cinema studies, journalism, public relations, speech, rhetoric, graphic art and design, audio/video production, new media technology, media criticism, telecommunications, health communication, public policy, and popular culture.  Subsequently, research on women and minorities in communication is deficient because of the general paucity of wide-ranging humanities research. 

The first long-term study on the humanities was launched in 2006.  The Humanities Indicators Project was developed in an attempt to duplicate in humanities what the Science and Engineering Indicators have historically accomplished in math and science (Howard A12).  This is the first long-term data-collecting effort led by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  According to the Chronicle for Higher Education, “for more than a year, the Humanities Indicators project has been gathering, sorting, ‘scrubbing,’ (cleaning up) and analyzing statistics on almost every aspect of the humanities at every academic level, from pre-school to postgraduate” (A12).  Data categories include courses offered, degrees earned, faculty members hired, and research supported.  Early findings offer insight into the experiences of women in the field.

The first-round results indicate that women in the humanities are generally well-represented; only the health sciences and education employed a higher percentage of female faculty members.  However, the number of tenure-track and fully tenured positions has steadily declined since the early 1990s, “dropping from approximately 55 percent of faculty in 1993 to less than 50 percent in 2004” (A12).  What is even more disturbing is the fact that the highest proportion of women are not on the tenure track.  As the number of women in tenure-track positions declined, the number of women in non-tenure track positions increased, which reflects an increased use of adjunct labor throughout academe, the majority of which are women.  One could hypothesize that the humanities is an area that has become “feminized,” revealing the disparity in protected jobs for women.  Furthermore, it could also be a variable in the wage gap between the humanities and sciences, and the reason why a small amount of research is executed in humanities – because it is mainly composed of female faculty and staff. 

The Humanities Indicators project is invaluable because, although the data may be troubling, it can help determine what has been happening to the recruitment, training and career chances of students and faculty of history, philosophy and literature, among other disciplines. Based on this data, educational resources can be adapted to better meet the needs of students and faculty in the humanities, particularly women and people of color.  The data can also be used to further explore the extent to which gender and sex discrimination impact the discipline in a variety of areas including pay, retention, support, and treatment.  The recent emergence of this research is not necessarily due to benevolence. Traditionally, society has considered science and engineering an important part of the economic health and progress of the nation. More recently, the humanities have included extremely popular majors such as communications. The general public, including business and commerce, is now also recognizing the importance of humanities-related fields to the health and progress of the nation, particularly as we have developed into a post-industrial, technology-driven society. 

It is important to examine the traditional barriers to success impacting women and minorities in academia today.  Sex discrimination for women and double discrimination for women of color is problematic, as these attitudes are entrenched in the culture of academia, a formerly privileged, white male space. Women and minority faculty often serve “double masters” with appointments in multiple departments, which may have different requirements for tenure.  They must also introduce or design courses that add diversity and comprehensiveness to a discipline, requiring additional research and preparation.  They often must work in social isolation because they do not have the support networks in place, including mentorship and leadership development.

Discrimination can occur during the promotion and tenure process, with many decisions controlled by the most senior members of the largely white male faculty and staff.  Additionally, women and minorities are typically overrepresented in lower ranks, which limit their ability to create meaningful change in departments and disciplines.  Women and minorities are overburdened with representation on committees (Black History Month, Women’s History Month) and conversely prevented from becoming part of more powerful committees (promotion and tenure) because of their status as junior faculty (Menges 131). Consequently, their hypervisibility as women and minorities results in opportunities or appointments that are overwhelming.

Barriers to access are even more complicated when race and class become factors.  Historically, financial circumstances have been particularly challenging for disenfranchised groups in academia. For example, many black doctoral recipients are dependent on their own earnings (Menges 128). They must often contribute financially to family members who are living in poverty.  Poor women and faculty of color often accept financial and social responsibilities for family members while receiving low salaries in humanities departments.  Additionally, some ethnic and racial groups, like blacks and Latinos, have traditionally been ascribed inferior societal status. According to educational scholar Theresa Herrera Escobedo, “At many academic institutions, there is a certain intellectual elitism, ethnocentric in nature, that precludes the recognition of colleagues who are not credentialed by the more prestigious universities, schools which are often beyond Hispanics’ regional and financial range” (9).  Thus, black and Hispanic women are adversely affected as the result of sex, race and class discrimination on multiple levels, which impact retention and representation on college campuses.

The promotion and tenure process is also precarious.  Having and sustaining a career in academia requires more than accessing a junior faculty position – it requires tenure.  Many faculty members complain that requirements for tenure are unclear, inappropriate and unrealistic. They are also dissatisfied with the significance assigned to various dimensions of performance.  Some factors affect faculty across the board, but issues of economics, seniority, service, scholarship and support networks impact women and minorities more concretely. 

Barriers to women and minorities in the humanities or communications can be more pronounced. Appointments have been traditionally white and male-dominated, but as opportunities become more available to women, a general perception of curricular weakness has developed in academic circles.  This lack of respect is demonstrated by communications and humanities disciplines often serving as “the great dumping ground,” for students who are unsuccessful in math and the sciences or who are unsure of which major to declare.  An illusion of simplicity in the humanities persists, accompanied by descriptive adjectives such as “creative”, “touchy-feely,” and “natural abilities.” It is ironic that these very characteristics are frequently used to describe the roles of women in society.  Subsequently, many women and minority instructors are overburdened with the growing demands based on increased enrollment, along with inadequate resources relative to the number of students, particularly in the communications disciplines.  These limited resources can include equipment, additional faculty lines, teaching and research assistants, additional pay for increased course enrollments, and supplementary support staff. 

Additional challenges facing women and minority faculty include managing career and family obligations.   According to education scholar Sheilah Gregory, “Glowinkowski and Cooper (1987) concluded that the pressures, challenges and consequences of marriage and motherhood were greater for women in the academy than for their male counterparts because women were still considered primarily responsible for the children.  Hensel (1991) found that few successful faculty women were married with children, yet most successful faculty men maintained both marriage and family” (127). Most studies report that tenure probationary periods often begin as women faculty enter the prime of their childbearing years (Gregory 127), so they must often choose between motherhood and promotion.  Many often settle for positions that keep them on the margins of power within the discipline and the department in order to meet those obligations.

The career trajectories of women are complicated because of these factors and are exacerbated in households of color.  Historically, black women have juggled family, work and community responsibilities, and doing so often comes at a high price (Gregory 126).  This price may include the length of time it takes a woman of color to obtain tenure, which is significantly longer than her white counterparts.  Furthermore, black women are more likely to be heads of households without spousal or family networks, particularly when they are employed at institutions geographically isolated from those networks, subsequently burdening them with greater economic and familial responsibilities. Confronting and resisting stereotypes about mythical black and brown hyper-sexuality and “irresponsible” reproduction may add greater psychological strain to this process. These issues are further compounded in the humanities, particularly communications, in departments with large course sizes, inadequate support systems and consistently greater faculty demands.

Research indicates that self-imposed barriers are not frequently discussed, and are constructed in response to pervasive myths and stereotypes of women academics.  Women and minorities overwork themselves in an effort to prove their value and worth to the department in particular, and the academy as a whole.  Many volunteer and accept appointments that negatively impact teaching and research agendas in an effort to be a team player, and to strengthen tenure applications.  Subsequently, women and minority academics may unwittingly isolate themselves socially and professionally from potential support networks, as they become overwhelmed by a disproportionate share of work responsibilities. This in turn can negatively impact the ability to obtain tenure.

In conclusion, additional research on women and minorities in the humanities is critical.  Furthermore, the barriers to access that have prevented the advancement of women and minorities in academia, often aggravated by greater demands, are based on the exponential growth in communications and media studies.  Overcoming these obstacles can be achieved by developing relationships with effective mentors, advisors and colleagues, obtaining institutional knowledge, and establishing a support system including colleagues and staff. Women and minority faculty candidates, especially those who are in a position to create change at colleges and universities, can help dispel myths about the humanities by lobbying for adequate resources, stronger discipline requirements, and strategic networking across all disciplines.  Realizing the potential and needs of women and the minorities can relieve the unpredictability and provide opportunities for advancement in communications, as well as the larger academic community.


Escobedo, Theresa Herrera. “Are Hispanic Women in Higher Education the Nonexistent

Minority?” Educational Researcher. Vol. 9. No. 9. October 1980, pp. 7-12.

Gregory, Sheila T. “Black Faculty Women in the Academy: History, Status, and Future.” The Journal of Negro Education. Vol. 70. No. 3. Black Women in the Academy: Challenges and Opportunities. Summer 2001, pp. 124-138.

Howard, Jennifer.  “Early Findings from Humanities-Indicator Project are Unveiled at Montreal Meeting.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Vol. 53. Issue 37. Page A12. May 18, 2007.

Menges, Robert J. and William H. Exum. “Barriers to the Progress of Women and Minority Faculty.” The Journal of Higher Education. Vol. 54. No. 2. March-April 1983, pp. 123-144.

Solow, Robert M. et Al. Making the Humanities Count: The Importance of Data. Cambridge: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2002.

Turner, Caroline Sotello Viernes. “Women of Color in Academe: Living with Multiple Marginality.” The Journal of Higher Education. Vol. 73. No. 1. Special Issue: The Faculty in the New Millennium. January – February 2002, pp. 74-93.

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