Black-and-white photographs of women and non-binary faculty of color.

OPINION: Women and Non-Binary Faculty of Color Are Vulnerable One Year Into Pandemic

by Dr. Jane J. Lee, Dr. Ching-In Chen, Dr. Jacqueline L. Padilla-Gamiño, Dr. Beatrice Wamuti, Dr. Anna Zamora-Kapoor, Dr. Karin D. Martin, and Dr. Linh T. Nguyen

Over the past year, the coronavirus has drastically shifted how we live, work, and operate. As academic institutions across the country moved to emergency remote work and instruction, faculty adapted to changes in how we teach, conduct research, and fulfill other professional responsibilities. As many of these institutions prepare to return to largely in-person learning in the fall, we reflect upon our experiences to help inform how we can move forward.

As women or non-binary faculty of color who are early in our academic careers, we recognize that the transitions resulting from the coronavirus were particularly challenging for us to navigate given our multiple, marginalized identities. We already bear multiple burdens within academia given our first-generation status, the many requests to “represent” as the rare woman or non-binary faculty of color, and our voluntary commitment to mentor and build a pipeline for those who follow. This has also all happened during one of the most significant racial justice movements in the past year, which pushed issues of police murder and brutality against Black bodies and civilian violence against Asians into the public sphere as well as intensified nationwide anti-trans legislation. Layered on top of these burdens was the multiplier effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Our immediate response to these multiplier effects was informed by having formed a women and non-binary faculty of color working group in early 2019. We meet monthly and have found that the emotional and intellectual safe space has afforded us collective insights, generally and in the context of this pandemic. We are members of the communities that have been disproportionately affected by the virus. There has been higher incidence of COVID-19 in minority communities as well as greater hospitalizations and death rates. Hence, we and our friends and families have been more likely to be directly affected and die from the disease. As many of us focus our research on racial, ethnic, and gender disparities, this past year has been yet another example of the societal inequities that necessitate our work. It raises the importance of our work and the urgency of our efforts. It weighs heavily on our shoulders.

Yet, for many of us, our research and academic responsibilities have been exponentially more difficult to accomplish as we have attempted to work full-time, while taking care of our children, supporting parents and other family members as well as chosen family not supported by society due to homophobia and transphobia. Large proportions of our families and communities are also hourly workers, service workers, and those formerly deemed unskilled but now “essential workers.” We acknowledge our immense privilege in our ability to work at large public universities during these precarious times, even while we know that universities are not immune from the coronavirus’s economic impact. Additionally, not only are our communities impacted by the disease, the economic hardships have been profoundly palpable for the ones we love and care for, as well as the communities we serve.

These health, financial, and emotional difficulties deeply affect the students we mentor, who encompass students who identify as minorities and/or come from low-income families. As their experiences parallel so much of our own journeys, we feel personally invested in their success — that which has become threatened by the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. For those starting dissertations with in-person data collection plans, we have helped them reinvent their research. For those who are close to defending their theses, we have been worried as they enter a labor market with very few jobs. For those that have accumulated student debt, many are concerned about how they will be able to pay it back.

However, long before this disease made its way into our lives, we have been well aware of the additional roles that we are expected to fulfill at universities based on our identities of gender, race/ethnicity, sexuality, citizenship, and pre-tenure status. These expectations, which often include supporting the diversity missions of our schools or departments and mentoring students of color and/or queer/trans students, are often deemed “invisible labor” as they do not necessarily contribute to typical markers of merit such as tenure or promotion. While our colleagues may be aware of the additional demands on our time, they seldom explicitly acknowledge the significant amount of emotional and intellectual labor that these demands require and how it affects us.

Universities have responded by extending our tenure clocks but in most cases not adjusting expectations for research. The impact of this is multiple and the results will be long-lasting. Some of us are faculty who primarily conduct qualitative research, which relies upon close contact and interpersonal relationships, and the pandemic has disrupted our ability to work with the communities we serve. In order to avoid endangering them through transmission of the virus and to be mindful of the additional stress and time demands the pandemic has caused, research has ceased in many instances. While time extensions offer brief respite from the demands of the clock, they do not adequately address the issue of research impacted by the pandemic — which we are still entrenched in as Washington state experiences its fourth surge. We are not laboring under normal conditions, as such expectations about our productivity must be reevaluated with this in mind. Rather than taking this as a lowering of standards, we believe it is the most humane realignment of expectations with the reality of our present health, racial, economic, and social crises. Additionally, faculty of color who do the most caregiving will be the most impacted by additional time spent at the rank of assistant professor, rather than securing tenure in “normative time.” These impacts are compounded and have long-lasting impacts on future salary and retirement.

The coronavirus and its impacts have added a complex layer to how our intersectional identities generate further responsibilities. As we continue to teach our classes online, we perform an unfamiliar yet seemingly necessary type of emotional labor to compensate for the lack of in-person interaction and the need to be likeable virtually. We have dealt with new fears, such as the threat of “Zoombombing,” with its targeting of classrooms using racialized, sexualized offensive language and images. These concerns are partly because we know that women, especially Women of Color, are less likely to receive favorable course evaluations due to gender and racial bias. As this is just one example of the multiple concerns that may be beyond the purview of our white, male, or more established colleagues, we cannot help but worry about the potential side effects of how we performed or what we accomplished during this time.

We recognize that this pandemic has undeniably affected us all — some of us in ways that even we cannot comprehend. As such, it has drawn attention to the deep-seated structural problems that perpetuate vulnerability and inequality. While many of the changes in our everyday lives have been assumed to be short-term, we anticipate that some changes will extend far beyond the immediate consequences of the virus. We voice our hope as well as plans to contribute to efforts that some of these long-term shifts will enhance equity and mitigate the structural challenges that contribute to the stark disparities in our country. Most of all, we urge us all to use these insights and revelations to remake our institutions for the better for all of us. Bring us into the center of decisions, ask how we might reorganize and re-prioritize our work to advance knowledge, capacities to generate knowledge, while supporting a diverse and robust faculty and student experience.

This opinion piece was written by Dr. Jane J. Lee, School of Social Work, University of Washington; Dr. Ching-In Chen, Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences, University of Washington Bothell; Dr. Jacqueline L. Padilla-Gamiño, School of Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences, University of Washington; Dr. Beatrice Wamuti, Implementation Science, University of Washington; Dr. Anna Zamora-Kapoor, Department of Sociology and Department of Medical Education and Clinical Sciences, Washington State University; Dr. Karin D. Martin, Evans School of Public Policy & Governance, University of Washington; and Dr. Linh T. Nguyen, Department of American Ethnic Studies, University of Washington.

📸 Featured Image: Top (Left to right): Dr. Jane J. Lee, Dr. Ching-In Chen, Dr. Jacqueline Padilla-Gamiño, Dr. Beatrice Wamuti; Bottom (Left to right): Dr. Anna Zamora-Kapoor, Dr. Karin D. Martin, and Dr. Linh T. Nguyen. Photos courtesy of Dr. Jane J. Lee.

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