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Women faculty of color: Numbers are low, but new strategies offer hope for improvement

Georgia Institute of Technology Research News

Cheryl Leggon

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The numbers of women of color on academic faculties in the United States are very small and not increasing. There are even fewer such professors in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. And the implications of this deficit are far-reaching, researchers suggest.

But some strategies for improvement exist at both the individual and institutional levels, and therein lies the hope that Georgia Institute of Technology Associate Professor of Public Policy Cheryl Leggon will deliver to her audience at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in Seattle. Leggon will speak and participate in a panel discussion titled "Nearly Invisible: Experiences of Minority Science Faculty in Mainstream Institutions" from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 15.

"The numbers are grim across the board for males and females of color," Leggon says.

The situation has not improved much in the past decade. There have been only miniscule increases in faculty - especially women -- of color in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, Leggon notes.

She cites several implications of these statistics. First is the effect of this deficit on students.

"The United States is becoming more diverse, and that is somewhat reflected in the student population in college and universities, but nowhere in the faculty population," explains Leggon, a sociologist. "That is problematic. What kind of message does it send to students? The implicit message is, 'You can't do this.' The absence of these groups does send a message."

Leggon cites two other important reasons to increase diversity among STEM faculty. "It significantly enhances the quality of scientific research insofar as it expands the pool from which the United States draws its science talent," she says. "And it improves the quality of the educational experience for all students."

To improve conditions for women and men of color in the STEM fields in academia, strategies could be employed at both the individual and institutional levels, Leggon says.

At undergraduate level, students should be informed about the range of opportunities they might have with a degree in a particular field. "For example, if you have biology majors from an underrepresented group, they are probably only thinking of a career in medicine," Leggon says. "They don't usually think of a research career in academe."

If undergraduate students do indicate an interest in a career in academe, it's important they know how to select a graduate school. "They shouldn't apply to an institution just because of its overall reputation," Leggon explains. "They should take into account the reputation of the specific department, program and faculty with whom they would like to work."

For junior faculty members, particularly in underrepresented groups, administrators must make clear the criteria for getting tenure, Leggon says.

"Committee work is time-consuming and does not substitute for publications," she adds. "Also, because there are so few women faculty of color, students of color gravitate toward you. Again as a junior faculty member, you have to be careful it's not all-consuming. Sometimes, it's difficult to make that judgment. It's a dilemma because junior women of color are so passionate about mentoring. But to make the greatest impact in the long run, you have to get tenure first so you'll be here later."

Strategies to improve conditions for women of color and other underrepresented groups must also exist at an institutional level, Leggon says. "You can't depend on the good will of a few people," she adds. "I can't emphasize enough the importance of institutionalizing policies. If something is standard operating procedure, then it's one of the criteria on which performance is evaluated."

Programs such as the National Science Foundation's ADVANCE program for women faculty development are designed to transform institutional culture, Leggon says. At Georgia Tech, the ADVANCE program has sponsored sessions on how to get tenure, establish a research agenda and get published.

"We need programs like this within a given institution and, secondly, across institutions -- like in consortia," Leggon says. "Increasing faculty diversity benefits not only one college or university, but the entire society."


Technical Contact: Cheryl Leggon, 404-385-4259; E-mail:

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