The Power of Networks for STEM Women of Color Faculty

What are the best parts of your experience as a faculty member? Ask this question of a woman of color in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines, and her eyes will likely widen as she animatedly describes her research and how it addresses a problem she sees as important. She is apt to recount her delight in including her students in this research (as her first STEM mentor did for her). She might also discuss her success in increasing the number of students from underrepresented backgrounds who major in her discipline, and the evidence-based practices she has incorporated into her teaching to engage and empower her students.

What are the biggest challenges you face as a faculty member? Ask her this question and you will get a different reaction. She may worriedly talk about the challenge of being the only woman of color in her department, quoting the research on the disparately negative health outcomes for women in academe who look like her. She may remark that students seem to gravitate to her for assistance, which she provides generously while some of her male colleagues linger over their research and writing undisturbed. It seems a given that I will “take care” of our students, she may reveal, quickly adding that good advising is important if we are to increase the number of students of color in STEM fields.

She may then respond to your questions with one of her own: Why am I the only one, or one of just a few, who takes the time to provide our students this service? She may also be wondering silently, what consequences will my dedication to students have for my academic career?

Program Design

The faculty member in our opening vignette would be right to worry. It is well known that review, promotion, and tenure processes emphasize research over teaching and service. Although they fare better at underrepresented minority (URM) universities than at non-URM universities, women of color represent the lowest percentage of tenured and full professors across all sectors (Matchett 2013, 8); and these positions are the stepping stones to leadership. The chilly climate in academia for women, and particularly for STEM women of color (WOC) faculty who experience the “double bind” of being a woman and of being a person of color, has been well documented (Harvard Educational Review 2011). Knowing this, we must examine how cultural factors, including isolation as the only woman of color in a department and common assumptions about women of color faculty’s roles as student advisors, can inhibit these women’s rise to leadership roles in the academy.

The Preparing Critical Faculty for the Future (PCFF) program, conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), uses a combination of intervention strategies to address these challenges. In creating the program, we assumed that Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), which often have a critical mass of faculty members of color, would offer environments that support leadership advancement among STEM WOC faculty. We wanted to build on the strengths of those environments by creating opportunities for STEM WOC faculty at HBCUs to access robust networks—both of women like themselves, and of other faculty members and administrators committed to transforming undergraduate STEM education.

The first phase of PCFF, which ran from 2010 to 2015, consisted of professional development in leadership and pedagogy for seventy-two women—two from each of thirty-six HBCUs, divided into three cohorts. Each cohort participated in two symposia designed specifically for PCFF participants as well as in professional development activities embedded in AAC&U conferences and summer institutes. At the summer institutes, a five-person team from each participating institution (including the two STEM WOC faculty members, two other faculty or STEM support professionals, and a senior administrator) refined action plans for STEM curricular transformation. During and after their yearlong PCFF participation, the STEM WOC faculty led their institutional teams in executing these plans. PCFF’s second phase (running from 2012 to 2015) provides additional NSF resources to advance the most promising work of nine of these first-phase teams.

Strategies for Networking

The PCFF leadership team quickly learned that in order to lead transformational efforts in STEM, project participants needed more opportunities (1) to network with other STEM WOC faculty and (2) to connect with WOC leaders in STEM and other disciplines. We then increased support for program elements that included facilitated interactions (e.g., by supporting participants’ attendance at the STEM Women of Color Conclave, a two-day summit for STEM WOC).

At the two symposia, participants interacted one-on-one with other PCFF participants in their disciplines, attended presentations by and participated in small-group discussions with successful STEM WOC academic leaders (provosts, presidents, department chairs, and tenured or full professors), and engaged with WOC in other fields who had successfully addressed the challenges that WOC generally face in academe. In addition, between the symposia, participants engaged in webinars focused on a variety of topics such as personal successes and challenges.

Data collected on various program elements revealed networking to be among the most beneficial elements of participants’ involvement (see figure 1). While participants cited other lessons that were reflected in the content of program activities, they found the opportunities for open-ended dialogue particularly powerful. Seasoned STEM WOC faculty provided practical advice about managing time and resources, using technology, and urging institutional leadership to hold all faculty accountable for student success. Meanwhile, participants shared their similar experiences with their cohort colleagues and affirmed each other’s value as researchers who are also committed to ensuring that all students thrive.


Click here to expand figure 1

Lessons and Applications

From participant feedback, we learned that although the climate for people of color is generally much warmer at HBCUs than at predominantly white institutions (PWIs), even at HBCUs, WOC faculty experience chillier climates in the STEM disciplines than in other disciplines. Many STEM WOC faculty experience these chilly climates in connection with being “the only one who looks like them” in a department, and their sense of isolation can be compounded by the expectation that they will act as the primary mentor for male and female students “like them.”

Given this reality, it is critical for educators at HBCUs and PWIs alike to disabuse themselves and their colleagues of the idea that women of color are the best or only advisors for students of color. Guiding all students toward success is a skill that white faculty and faculty of color must develop as the nation’s campuses become more racially and ethnically diverse. Institutions can use a variety of strategies to make student success a shared responsibility, including teaching faculty to direct students to the appropriate campus resources for support with issues such as finances, psychological stress, family responsibilities, and academic strengthening when needed. Staff providing these resources must be culturally competent to ensure that students feel encouraged instead of demeaned for seeking assistance.

Robust networks of support for students of color in STEM would have the additional benefit of supporting WOC STEM faculty in their faculty roles. Imagine what our campuses would be like if institutions took steps to ensure that all faculty accepted responsibility for all students’ success. If that were the case, imagine how differently the STEM WOC faculty member in our opening vignette might respond to the questions we posed.

Author’s note: AAC&U is grateful to NSF for recognizing the need to support WOC faculty at HBCUs as key leaders in the work of transforming undergraduate STEM education for students underrepresented in these fields and others. Thanks are also due to Jennifer Blaney for her analysis of the qualitative data. For more about PCFF, watch for our monograph forthcoming from AAC&U in 2015.


Harvard Educational Review, ed. 2011. “Unraveling the Double Bind: Women of Color in STEM” (Symposium Proceedings). Special Issue, Harvard Educational Review 81 (2).

Matchett, Karin. 2013. Seeking Solutions: Maximizing American Talent by Advancing Women of Color in Academe. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Alma R. Clayton-Pedersen is senior scholar at the Association of American Colleges and Universities and chief executive officer of Emeritus Consulting Group, LLC.

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