In the Company of Future Women of Color Leaders

For women of color in higher education, being ‘the only one’ is not just about gender but also about race.

Editor Liana Silva-FordEditor Liana Silva-Ford

Last December, I attended my first conference as incoming editor of Women in Higher Education, the Women’s Leadership Institute at Amelia Island FL. 

As I surveyed the different presentations to see which ones I wanted to cover, the Women of Color Leadership Round-Table stood out to me: It was bright and early on the first
morning of the Institute but it was also the only part of the
program that made a point to directly address women of color.

In the opening keynote, co-organizer Marta Pérez Drake pointed out that this was only the second year they had held the roundtable. I knew I wanted to attend and hear what concerns the women of color brought to the Institute.

Those attending the roundtable, which was more of a conversation than a typical conference roundtable, spanned generational and ethnic divides: There were older administrators and young staff members, Latinas and African Americans, early career women and women looking for the next step in their careers.

Over a breakfast of coffee, fruit and pastries, the women shared experiences, their questions spreading out across several dining tables.

As a group, Pérez Drake encouraged us to think about what issues women of color face on their campuses.

Lonely onlies
At my table, one of the first issues that came up was how often women of color in campus departments often feel they are The Only One—the only person of color and/or the only woman. 

This situation can produce anxiety, the women agreed; there is pressure to perform at the highest capacity at all times because one feels always super visible. In addition, it’s hard to find someone to talk to about feeling singled out or navigating offices spaces that are comprised of people not like oneself. 

One of the suggestions that came up in the discussion was to keep in mind how important it is to be visible all around campus and to take on leadership roles. Women of color often represent so many women before us and after us, and we can find strength in that.

This conversation led to another issue: where can women of color find mentors and sponsors to help them move ahead in their careers? The women at the table stressed the importance of visualizing what success looks for them and reaching out to mentors—and those mentors may or may not look like you. Be open to taking risks!

Questions of balance
One of the younger women at our table raised the question about balancing expectations at work and at home. Sometimes women feel the pressure to take on more tasks than we should; women of color especially feel the need to demonstrate that they are reliable, efficient and productive staff members if they are outnumbered in the office. On top of that, the young woman mentioned that she wanted to be present at home and contribute to the household. How to strike a healthy balance?

Many of us jumped in and stressed the importance of equitable partnerships in the household. We are not the only ones in charge of picking up the bedroom or cleaning the kitchen or folding the laundry. Talking with our significant others about how to handle chores, especially around difficult times of the semester, can help dissuade feelings of anxiety about the home.

More importantly, we need to be aware of cultural and societal expectations we put on ourselves. Who tells us we are the ones to clean up the kitchen? Or that we need to do laundry today? Does it really have to be done today? If the difference between doing laundry today and doing it tomorrow is a restful evening for yourself and your family, it’s okay to leave the laundry for later.

Need for self care
This point leads me to one of the major concerns of the roundtable and the Institute as a whole: self care.

Managing expectations at work and at home, of ourselves and our friends and family, is not just about keeping things moving but also about our own well-being.When we can take time for ourselves, we make ourselves a priority.

Caring for ourselves can run against the “caregiver instinct” many of us have, the impulse to take care of everythin and everyone. This instinct comes in handy when we have to multi-task, but we need to remind ourselves to keep in mind our goals and our schedules. The Institute organizers reminded attendees more than once to take time for themselves: by the beach, at the spa or with a new friend.

For women of color leaders, self care spills over to also keeping in mind cultural and racial expectations that we may not be aware of or that we take upon ourselves. Sometimes the most pressure to be all things to everyone comes from within.

However, one thing that the women at my table emphasized was the importance of finding one’s own journey and keep an eye out for opportunities for growth.

Being attuned to what makes one happy, career-wise, will help in choosing what new obligations to take on or how to spend one’s free time. “What do we value?” was a common question.

The most heartwarming part for me was to see how all the women at the table encouraged one department director who confessed to all of us that she was ready to pursue her dream of obtaining a PhD.

Hearing the words of encouragement for this woman—who most of us knew for only a few minutes— reminded me why these meetings are important: They remind women of color that although they may feel alone in their departments, there are many others across institutions who are cheering them on and waiting to lend a hand to help them up.

I hope to meet many of you at future conferences, so I
can learn your stories, concerns and solutions.

Silva-Ford, Liana. (2014, February). In the Company of Future Women of Color Leaders. Women in Higher Education, 23(2), 16. 

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