Front and Center

The political ascendancy of Kamala Harris and Stacey Abrams has led to a sense of hope for similar trends in professions in which Black women are underrepresented. It has also led higher ed leaders to renew their commitment to helping Black women assume leadership roles in their fields.

November 24, 2020
 
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Vice President-elect Kamala Harris

For many Black women in higher education, Kamala Harris’s election as vice president of the United States is a moment of gratification and recognition, a symbol of what’s to come and what always has been.

“It proves what I’ve known all along in life -- that Black women are amazing,” said Aniyah Vines, a Howard University junior and president of the NAACP college chapter at the university, which is Harris’s alma mater. “Now the world is able to see on a large scale how amazing we are … You can find us now in the White House; you can find us everywhere. And you’ll continue to find us everywhere.”

Three weeks after Harris’s historic election, Black college students, presidents, faculty members and other higher ed professionals are still celebrating and assessing what her win means to them individually and to black women collectively.

Black women are currently key leaders in the fight against racial injustice in America through the Black Lives Matter movement and are also helping wage political and legal campaigns as part of that effort. While they have held cabinet positions and led federal agencies in the administrations of several U.S. presidents, Harris is the first Black woman to ascend to the rank of vice president. And her selection occurs at time when black women are increasingly being seen and validated in the ongoing national discourse about racial representation and equality, said Mary Schmidt Campbell, president of Spelman College, a 139-year old historically Black women's institution in Atlanta that has educated and shaped thousands of black women into leaders over the decades.

Among Spelman’s alumnae is Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia state representative and 2018 gubernatorial candidate who founded influential voter registration organizations that launched fair election campaigns in the state and nationwide. Abrams’s organizations Fair Fight and New Georgia Project estimated they registered more than 800,000 new voters in Georgia before the 2020 election, according to media reports. Though she lost the race for governor two years ago, Abrams is regarded as an inspiration to Spelman students, Campbell said.

“Even when she fell short of the governorship, she didn’t stop,” Campbell said. “Being able to conceptualize and give power to people through the vote is one of Stacey Abrams’s great achievements. That’s what inspires my students.”

Shirley Ann Jackson, the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, who became the first Black woman to lead a top research institution in 1999, said Harris's election as vice president "clearly represents a turning point."

"Instead of retreating from the Georgia electoral system, she decided to change the system to make it more just," Jackson said of Abrams.

Jackson also sees some of her own experience in Abrams's perseverance and dedication to improve the electoral system. As an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she co-founded the first Black Student Union and led efforts for MIT to recruit more Black students, faculty members and administrators. She later became the first Black woman to receive a doctorate from MIT.

"When it came time to choose where to attend graduate school, I realized that MIT was the place where I would have the greatest opportunity to make a difference," Jackson said. "I helped to change the culture of MIT, and of science and engineering in the United States."

Despite the success of Harris and Abrams, Jackson noted, there is still "a long way to go" until Black women are adequately represented and supported in government, business and academia. Still, Black women made notable political inroads this month, when three Black women -- along with three Latina and three Asian women -- were newly elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, according to the Rutgers University Center for American Women and Politics. (The center reported that no women of color won election to the U.S. Senate.)

One of those women is Cori Bush, a Black Lives Matter activist who will be the first Black woman to represent Missouri in Congress, St. Louis Public Radio reported. Voters in Washington State elected Marilyn Strickland, a Democrat and former mayor of Takoma, Wash., as their first Black and Korean American woman representative in Congress, the Rutgers center reported. Along with Nikema Williams of Georgia, the newly elected women will bring the total number of Black women in Congress to 25.

The rise of figures such as Harris and Abrams has led to widespread discussions about the dearth of Black women managers and executives across all American industries, especially in fields such as computer science, financial services, advertising and marketing, and higher ed. For instance, only a handful of Black women, including Jackson, have led large or well-known private or public American colleges or universities, much less elite research institutions.

Administrators at many colleges and universities across the country have recently announced new strategies to address racial inequities on their campuses, including by hiring and promoting more Black women, in the wake of the nationwide racial reckoning prompted by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last spring. Black women continue to be severely underrepresented in management positions across all sectors, holding only 4 percent of management jobs compared to about 32 percent held by white women, according to 2019 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

As more Black women rise to prominence, it’s important to address the systemic barriers that they have historically faced getting to the top and that continue to hold young Black women back, students and college leaders said.

Courtney Copeland, a junior at George Washington University in the District of Columbia, said it’s difficult to be a Black woman studying STEM fields, which tend to be dominated by white men.

In study groups with white peers, Copeland, who is a premed student​, said she’s frequently “written off” or “not taken seriously” and feels she needs to work harder to demonstrate to employers that she is qualified for internships or other training opportunities in health care. She’s seen white peers chosen for positions based on whether an employer sees them as a “good fit” in a personal sense, rather than based on their academic record or experience, she said. While white people are hired or promoted due to their "potential," Copeland believes Black women often need to show they deserve a position based on past job performance.

“I feel as though Black women need to prove themselves,” Copeland said. “Whoever is picking them to be at the top needs to see numbers, facts, and is always questioning what they’ve done.”

The prevailing negative stereotypes and narratives about Black women -- that they are incompetent, untrustworthy or aggressive -- have been “reinforced for generations” and dominate perceptions of Black women, which can lead to negative employment outcomes, said Natasha Croom, a professor of higher education and student affairs at Clemson University who researches the advancement of women faculty members of color and identity development among undergraduates. She's also an adviser for diversity and inclusive excellence in the College of Education and mentors undergraduates of color.

A Black woman is more prone to judgement and scrutiny of her professional and academic merits, but she also faces the conflicting narrative of the “strong Black woman” or the more recent image of “Black girl magic,” which assumes that because she is Black, she “can save the world” without the support of others, Croom said. Some Black women, such as Vines, find this image empowering. But Croom said that narrative limited her ability to be vulnerable and prompted “an overwhelming sense of anxiety” and pressure.

“Yes, we should be in the conversation and decision-making seats, but I don’t know that if we had an entire White House full of Black women that everything would be different,” Croom said. “There’s this narrative that as a Black woman you’re here to save the day … It leaves all the responsibility on that Black woman.”

Howard, a historically Black university in Washington, is dedicating more research and resources to women’s issues and creating new partnerships with corporate leaders to propel women of color into management ranks. The university recently announced plans to open a new Center for Women, Gender and Global Leadership to house interdisciplinary faculty-led research, programs and events about women's issues, as well as develop internship and mentorship opportunities through partnerships with corporate leaders.

Jarpa Dawuni, a professor of political science, is spearheading the initiative and is seeking approval to create Howard's first minor in women's studies, gender and sexuality developed by her and her colleagues.

Dawuni said when she started teaching at Howard in 2015, there weren’t discussion spaces or groups of faculty members focused on gender issues until she organized one, and no courses on women and gender issues in the political science department until she proposed undergraduate and graduate level courses on "gender, law and politics." She said sometimes the racial justice pursuits at HBCUs, and of Black studies in general, can overshadow the need to focus on gender issues. Other scholars, too, have noted a “divide where women’s issues have to be put on the back burner in the interest of the Black collective,” but Dawuni said this is starting to change and the new center at Howard is an example of that change.

“If you look at women’s organizing in Africa, it was like, we are going to come together to fight against the colonialists and then later come together to fight for women’s rights,” she said. “We are seeing now a shift that’s happening globally, a shift in the U.S.”

Dawuni also noted that institutional leaders have increased their focus on programs that will support women of color.

"If I wasn’t getting the support from my dean, provost and president, we can shout all we want and these things are not going to get done," she said.

Similarly, Trinity Washington University, a Catholic institution also located in Washington, has a women's college with a student body that is 95 percent Black and Latina. The university recently launched a program to expand career opportunities and increase the number of women of color in certain professional occupations. The new program, Driving Actions for Racial Equity, or DARE, will focus on career preparation in nursing, health and human services, and science and technology fields where women of color are underrepresented in general and in executive leadership positions in particular.

Pat McGuire, Trinity’s president, said the goal of the university's effort is to create new academic programs and build relationships with companies that will lead to internship and employment opportunities for the university's students. McGuire said when Amazon officials decided to set up a headquarters for the e-commerce company in nearby Virginia and met with other major universities about forming career pipelines, she made sure Trinity administrators had similar conversations with CEOs of other local businesses.

McGuire said the intent of the DARE program is not only to prepare women of color to perform in jobs with companies wanting to diversify their workforces, but to help those companies embrace a culture shift by hiring the university’s students with an expectation that they will take on management roles and lead systematic changes.

“They need to feel that when they go out into the field they will be listened to and respected, not sent to the Amazon warehouse, but to the corporate offices,” she said. “The employer who does not know how to change with a more diverse workforce is losing out … I don’t want my students to go off to work in places that are going to be hostile work environments or expect my students to change.”

Croom, the Clemson professor, said even when leadership groups are diverse, it doesn't mean equity and justice are achieved. Black women have to be given the power and autonomy to initiate changes, she said. Despite the symbolic importance of Kamala Harris's election and the influence she's expected to have on criminal justice and other important economic and social policies in the Biden administration, Croom said Harris alone can't resolve the structural racism embedded in many aspects of American society with which this country is now grappling.

“Representation is one thing -- working for equity and social justice is another,” Croom said. “It’s important to see yourself in a position so you can aspire to that, but that’s not the same as doing equity and justice work.”

Vines, the Howard student and NAACP leader, voiced similar sentiments. She said although she and other Howard students feel a sense of pride about Harris and admire her journey from the university to the White House, she also understands that the election does not guarantee tangible progress for the Black community.

As a racial justice activist, Vines said she also sees Harris as another leader to hold accountable for her and President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign promises to reform policing practices and dismantle systemic racism.

“I thank her for breaking and reaching those milestones for us on a large scale,” Vines said. “I hold her accountable the same way that I hold other people accountable for making positive change in the Black community … You have the power to make positive change -- will you do so?”

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