Racial/ethnic diversity within the United States is growing at a rapid pace. According to the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, racial/ethnic minorities will represent almost half of the U.S. population by 2050. However, this growth is not reflected within some of the most lucrative areas of the workforce. For example, people of color continue to be underrepresented in science and engineering fields of study and careers.
In particular, faculty of color underrepresentation in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields is a complex and progressive problem. When faculty of color are present within STEM fields, they are more heavily concentrated at lower faculty ranks (e.g., lecturer and assistant professor). At the highest levels of faculty rank (e.g., associate professor with tenure and full professor) underrepresentation for faculty of color is most severe. Higher education institutions focus a great deal of time and energy recruiting diverse faculty. But, trends such as these are an indicator that diverse faculty are not advancing through tenure and promotion.
Early Career Faculty Challenges
When faculty of color are the only one or one of few within their programs and departments, it can be a very isolating experience that they must learn how to navigate — often on their own. Figuring out how to balance teaching, research, service requests, and mentoring students, on top of the emotional labor and tax of daily microaggressions, takes time and energy away from focusing on tasks that matter most to their long-term success. For individuals who hold multiple marginalized identities, the interlocking of their identities within the context of white normative spaces often leads to and exacerbates issues of isolation, ostracization, chilly interpersonal interactions, and overall lack of belonging. Further, faculty with intersecting marginalized identities (i.e., women and individuals with diverse gender and sexual identities, and race/ethnicity) have difficulty navigating these spaces, which more often than not, takes a toll on their overall productivity and long-term success.
Brief Project Description
With these issues in mind, we conducted a study to better understand the experiences of early career faculty of color in engineering. We were interested in how faculty of color articulate and navigate the unique challenges of being underrepresented, as well as the structural challenges and barriers that are inherent within the academy. We also wanted to know how early career faculty of color might benefit from participating in communities of support.
We selected five early career engineering faculty to participate in a 12-week faculty success bootcamp, followed by 12 weeks of continued support through the alumni program for the bootcamp. The 12-week bootcamp is sponsored by the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity, the largest faculty development center in the country. It is designed to teach skills and strategies to help faculty plan effectively, as well as hold them accountable for research and writing in a supportive community.
The recommendations for broadening diversity offered below are derived from data collected for the project. We interviewed all five faculty members before and after participation in the bootcamp about their experiences on the tenure-track and their experience participating in the bootcamp. At the end of the alumni bootcamp experience, the five faculty participated in a focus group discussion about their experiences as early career faculty and as bootcamp participants.
Thoughts for Broadening Diversity
Based on our finding, we offer three observations about the experiences of early career faculty of color in engineering. When recruiting faculty of color, the department must be sensitive to the fact that these individuals will be one of a few or the only one who looks like them within their programs and/or departments. As a result, faculty participants in our study reported that the dynamic of “only-ness” resulted in isolation, heavy service requests (particularly when it came to advocating for underrepresented students), and horror stories rooted in microaggressions and other overt and covert forms of discrimination. As college campuses focus efforts to broaden diversity across all aspects of the campus, efforts must also be geared toward cleaning up the climate so that all faculty, students, staff, and administrators can thrive within their respective environments.
Our second observation relates to the first. When we realize and are sensitive to what faculty of color experience on the tenure track, departments must be diligent about mentoring and support. Rethinking mentoring requires moving beyond traditional practices, such as pairing a new faculty member with a more senior faculty member. Such pairings without thinking through what the new faculty member needs relative to where they are on the tenure track can lead to uneven outcomes. Some faculty benefit from this type of mentor match process, but many faculty do not. The participants in our study were able to see efforts of mentoring support within their respective departments, but they also could see where they fell short. Their participation in the bootcamp provided a community of support and allowed them the opportunity to think about and receive support and mentorship through a new lens. Further, participating in a supportive community equipped them with new skills and tools for self-advocacy.
Our last observation deals with an internal challenge expressed by faculty participants and is related to the importance of community engagement. Dealing (unsuccessfully) with structural challenges over time can have a way of making underrepresented faculty feel disempowered. However, it is important for underrepresented faculty to realize that they have more power and influence over how they navigate their time and energy than they may feel or realize. For many of the participants in our study, it was the first time they experienced a supportive intellectual community as a part of their work experience. Within the bootcamp community they found that they could share helpful tips and strategies for managing all aspects of their work and be held accountable for prioritizing the most important tasks. The good news is that spaces for intellectual community are available through faculty development centers on and off campus. The key for new faculty is to identify where they exist and get plugged in.
Although some progress has been made relative to broadening diversity in key areas of the U.S. workforce where demand is outpacing supply, we have a long way to go to achieve representation across a broader spectrum of talent. This article focuses on one key area where faculty of color are severely underrepresented, but there are many more that warrant investigation. The outcomes from this work have real implications for real people who are talented and deserve the opportunity to participate, thrive, and contribute across all aspects of the U.S. workforce.
Joy Gaston Gayles, Ph.D. is professor of higher education and university faculty scholar at North Carolina State University. Her research focuses on access and success in postsecondary education.
Chelsea Smith is a doctoral student in higher education at North Carolina State University. She is an SREB scholar and her research interests include Black women in STEM, and diversity and social justice education.