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The Joys and Struggles of Women of Color in Academia

"I didn't know I was a person of color until I came to the United States!" exclaimed Yoshiko Matsumoto. She was speaking to 40-odd students at the Women of Color in Academia panel presentation, held at the Stanford Women's Community Center last week. In addition to Matsumoto, panelists included Stanford faculty members Paula Moya and Sharon Williams, and graduate student Kim Warren, who moderated the panel.

The panelists spoke candidly about their experiences as women of color in academia and answered a range of questions--from how they achieved personal/professional balance to how they felt about constant requests (including this one) to speak at programs on issues related to race, gender, or both. It was an animated discussion; students and postdocs stayed well past the close of the program to gain as much wisdom as possible from these women.

"Sometimes, you have to do things differently in departmental meetings if you want to be heard," Williams advised when asked to identify issues specific to being a woman in academia. She went on to talk about the different communication styles of men and women, specifically how men may tend to present opinions as facts, whereas women are more likely to ask questions and seek feedback. The struggle she described between adjusting her style to get her point across while maintaining her own personal style resonated with many in the audience, who discussed similar problems. Other issues for the panelists included isolation (particularly in departments where they were either the only woman or person of color), having their work on race and gender taken seriously, and balance.

Despite the very real issues for women of color in academia, the news was not all bad. Some of the areas in which panelists struggled also had a positive side to them. For instance, Moya discussed what it was like to be a single parent in graduate school. "Having a child forced me to focus on finishing up, so that I could provide for her. I didn't have time to get caught up in the petty departmental stuff; she gave me a good perspective that actually helped me get through my program."

On the issue of personal/professional balance, the panelists had much advice. "I have purposefully not learned how to connect my e-mail at home," said Williams, when asked about crafting a personal life as a single person who could conceivably be at the office late every night. Matsumoto echoed what the others had to say, sharing that she did not want "Stanford to run my life," and talking about how having a child helped her to accomplish that goal.

Is the situation improving for women of color in academia? According to the panel, "yes and no." Williams, who was the second woman hired in psychiatry, is now one of four women in the department. However, she also noted that "nine times out of 10," she is both the only woman and the only African American in the room at higher level meetings on campus.

All of the panelists expressed concern about issues of isolation and being the only one to speak up out about gender or racial issues. They also talked about the importance of networking in the context of alienation, of how important it is to take the time to connect with other women of color in academia. This resonated with the experience of students in the audience, who could relate to feelings of isolation in their own situation as graduate students and postdocs. The panelists and the audience exchanged stories about both formal and informal ways to connect with one another in addition to other allies, which Moya emphasized was the key to success in academic communities.

"This program definitely achieved its goals," said Stephanie Eberle, a career counselor at Stanford University's Career Development Center, as she thumbed through the evaluations students had written. The Women of Color in Academia program was the first in the Women at Work programming series, which is cosponsored by the Career Development Center and the Stanford Women's Community Center.

Started in 2001 as the result of feedback received at both the Career Development Center and the Women's Community Center, this series addresses issues known through higher education research to be of concern to women college students. The series has been very popular, drawing in students who do not necessarily use either of these centers on a regular basis.

So, why does the Women at Work Series have such a wide appeal? "It works because it is practical and hands-on," Eberle stated. "Postdocs and students respond to programs that result from careful listening to their needs." From the looks of the program, it appears that this event was a positive step forward in creating a better environment for women of color who choose to dedicate their time and talent to academic careers.

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