White Men Must Learn to Say Yes

Rather than encourage women and people of color to do less service work, we should be encouraging white men to step forward and do more, argues Shannon Portillo.

August 23, 2017

An Inside Higher Ed article on a recent study finding that women do more service work than men in higher education buzzed around social media with comments of “duh,” “we know” and “and the sky is blue.” We know that people of color and women are underrepresented in faculty ranks and overrepresented in the amount of service work we do in the profession. Ample evidence backs this up, and plenty of think pieces have been published on how detrimental it may be to the careers of people of color and women in higher education.

True to form, researchers quoted in the article again advised women to be more strategic and learn to say no. Deans and chairs are often advised to protect new faculty of color and women from doing too much service and encourage them to focus on what is most important: research. What we rarely see is a call for white men to do more service.

White men are overrepresented in higher education and underrepresented in the amount of service they do within their institutions. Rather than encouraging women and people of color to say no, we should be encouraging white men to say yes.

Service work is valuable to our institutions. The service that people of color and women are often asked to avoid includes things like advising and mentoring students and other faculty members and serving on the committees that make important -- or mundane but necessary -- decisions in our organizations. Rather than encouraging a minority of faculty not to engage in this important work, we should encourage the majority to engage in it.

When white men do more service, women and people of color will have more time to engage in research. We do not have to level the playing field by asking people of color and women to act more like white men. We can level the playing field by asking white men to engage in their share of service, too.

I am a woman of color with tenure at a Research 1 institution. From the time I was an undergraduate who expressed interest in an academic career, I was mentored to learn to say no to service and focus on my research. But it was the service of others that allowed me to thrive in higher education. It was the strong mentorship from women of color who weren’t even in my discipline. It was the committees that reviewed my applications, those that crafted curriculum and those I didn’t even know existed that ensured I could have a meaningful career. I knew as a graduate student I wasn’t going to say no to that work. I was going to learn how to balance competing demands on my time, just as I had at each stage of my career up until that point. I have benefited immensely from the service I have engaged in, and so have the institutions where I’ve worked.

One potential problem is that we often don’t value service work -- particularly work that is internal to our institutions. However, it is that service that provides strong shared governance structures and rewarding experiences for our students. Institutions should value good organizational citizenship from their faculty. If chairs and deans evaluate faculty members not just on their research and teaching but also on their service, we may see better outcomes for students and institutions.

Of course, some people say that we cannot encourage academics to do service because it will take them away from research, and research is what counts. Research is how you achieve tenure, win awards and remain competitive for new opportunities. I am not saying that it should not be our primary goal. I am saying that it cannot be the only thing we value.

And I am not saying that women and people of color do not need to be strategic about how they manage their time or balance demands. But we all have to be strategic in order to be successful. It is not up to people of color and women to solve the imbalance of service work by saying no. It is up to white men to solve the imbalance of service work by saying yes.


Shannon Portillo is an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Kansas, who believes meaningful service and mentorship are important aspects of an academic career. Her research and teaching focus on social equity, local government and legal mobilization.


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