The Leaky Pipeline Playbook

Elena A. Miranda highlights the actions and behaviors of gatekeepers who hold the power to make or break careers and perpetuate the disenfranchisement of women and people of color.

August 13, 2021

The phrase "leaky pipeline" describes the diminishing numbers of women and Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) in STEM fields at every stage of their academic careers. Unfortunately, this term implies a deficit-minded view of students' abilities to persist in such disciplines. It implies that the students leak out and leave when they can't meet institutional standards.

What if women and BIPOC don't passively leak out of the pipeline but instead are forced out of it under pressure behind blockages? Stopping the leaky pipeline requires an introspective look by the gatekeepers who hold the power to make or break academic careers. The leaky pipeline is achieved in part by a playbook of actions and behaviors that are used to reinforce and perpetuate the disenfranchisement of women and people of color in STEM. My goal here is to shine light on those actions and behaviors that represent pipeline blockages so that they can be identified and removed.

As a Latina woman in STEM, I have had first-hand experience with such blockages as a student and as a faculty member on the tenure track in the geosciences. The small number of Latinas in senior geoscience faculty positions is a testament to how difficult it is to overcome such obstacles. When, in 2006, I obtained my Ph.D. in geology from a public research university in the Mountain West region, I was one of only four Mexican-American women to earn a degree in earth sciences in the entire country that year. As a tenured full professor now, I'm part of a tiny cohort; only 1 percent of full professors at colleges and universities are Latinas.

But even success stories like mine aren't free from the influence of the leaky pipeline. For me, the leaky pipeline manifested itself as countless points of momentum lost each time I had to fight through the blockages -- which ultimately and significantly changed my career trajectory.

Gatekeeping behaviors are applied repeatedly to BIPOC students in graduate school and on the tenure track. They often take the form of restrictive implicit and explicit expectations, shaped by gender and race, that directly affect how one's potential for advancement is evaluated and which opportunities are offered. The insidiousness of the negative messaging that I and other BIPOC have received is and was a powerful gatekeeping mechanism that has reinforced and raised the value of others' opinions over our own. This type of negative messaging is particularly acute in graduate school due to the outsized importance of the research adviser in making and breaking careers, which effectively perpetuates the leaky pipeline.

Here are some of the plays I want to highlight in the leaky pipeline playbook.

Weaponizing the unwritten curriculum. Many critical skills for success in an academic career -- writing papers and grant proposals, reviewing papers and proposals, and so forth -- are not taught in a class but are mainly controlled by an adviser's willingness to teach it to an advisee. But which students are worth the time investment? Apparently, not me or most other BIPOC students.

In fact, some advisers exploit our naiveté of the academic system. For instance, my adviser avoided training me and paying me on a major grant in which I was named, and I did not understand enough of the unwritten curriculum at the time to know how I was being disadvantaged.

"Steering down" into less prestigious, visible and impactful career opportunities. Whenever my adviser mentioned jobs for me, she talked about "when you're at a teaching college" as my appropriate fit. This type of messaging is not uncommon and sends a clear message about which jobs are considered suitable for BIPOC students -- and it isn't a job at a R1 institution.

Softening ambitions. When I became a new assistant professor, my graduate school adviser told me I should try for small education grants instead of large, multiyear ones. This type of messaging is a form of micro-invalidation and encourages BIPOC to soften their ambitions.

Presuming incompetence. My lack of familiarity with the unwritten curriculum paved the way for my graduate school adviser to expect failure from me when writing papers and proposals. The danger of this mindset is that normal setbacks that anyone would experience (like a declined proposal) mean even more when it happens to BIPOC students -- reinforcing the perception of our low potential.

Qualifying academic achievements. When BIPOC students succeed, our successes are often assumed to be due to their adviser's effort -- or us just getting lucky. In contrast, our failures are explicitly regarded as our own fault, lack of caliber or rigor. There is no room left for merit in our accomplishments.

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Requiring overt displays of gratitude and subservience. Many BIPOC graduate students and faculty are expected to be always and forever grateful, obedient and deferential to authority. The underlying assumption is that we can never fully earn our own success, creativity, independence, and ambition through our own efforts and merit.

Malicious advisement and bullying. Much of the advice many BIPOC students receive isn't in our best financial and career advancement interest. For example, when I completed my Ph.D., my adviser insisted that I work with her as an unpaid postdoc instead of accepting a tenure-track job offer. When I refused, I was met with not-so-subtle bullying. I was told, "To succeed in this business, it is not wise to ignore your academic friends -- they are always needed to write letters of reference and support for tenure, write favorably reviews and so on."

I've highlighted these blockages to raise fundamental questions: What can institutions do to remove them? How do we interrupt the effectiveness of these playbook moves?

An easy place to start is for colleges and universities to commit to formally teaching the unwritten curriculum so that career success in academe does not depend solely on advisers. The next step is to make mentoring of BIPOC students in STEM a meaningful component of the retention-tenure-promotion (RTP) process, such that faculty are evaluated and held accountable for their advisement practices. If both student and peer-teaching evaluations are used to assess teaching effectiveness, why is there no equivalent evaluation for student mentoring effectiveness? College and universities are clear in their expectations for graduate student performance, but they are typically silent on what students can expect from mentors and the institution. This missing component sends a strong message about the irrelevance of mentoring quality. In addition, funding agencies, such as the National Science Foundation, have a responsibility to the students named in grant awards to help ensure that their principal investigator appropriately characterizes their involvement and contributions in annual reports.

Only with these measures, and with accountability in place, can we make strides towards ending the culture of impunity that allows the leaky pipeline playbook to continue in perpetuity.

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Elena A. Miranda is professor of geology in the department of geological sciences at California State University, Northridge. She also holds a position as a faculty equity advocate for recruitment and retention of faculty at the university, where she focuses on implementing changes that foster inclusive excellence and equitable outcomes for underrepresented faculty.


Elena A. Miranda

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