Our Presence is Resistance: Stories of Black Women in Senior-Level Student Affairs Positions at Predominantly White Institutions
Womxn in Student Affairs
October 26, 2021
Black women have made tremendous progress in higher education. However, despite increases in enrollment and graduation, research regarding Black women’s experiences in senior-level positions in the student affairs field is limited. The purpose of this qualitative study was to explore the experiences of seven Black women in senior-level positions in student affairs at predominantly White institutions (PWIs). Analyzed using a Black feminist thought theoretical framework and narrative inquiry, this study amplified the unique standpoints of Black women in student affairs leadership positions at PWIs. The findings revealed strategies used and barriers faced when navigating racism and sexism for Black women in senior-level administrative positions in student affairs.
When I took this job, I didn’t get paid what I was worth. I should have stood my ground a little harder. I should have asked for more. And I didn’t. I regret that now … And I feel a lot of resentment about that … that I hadn’t let go in these past 2 years. And as a Black woman … we’ve been taught to minimize ourselves … when I took this role, I wanted an experience. It wasn’t about the money – but for everybody else, it’s about the damn money! So why shouldn’t I get paid? Why am I not valued at the same level?-Dean Shania Brown, Orange University
On May 30, 2019, I logged into a virtual meeting platform and waited for Dean Brown to arrive for her interview. Upon arrival, she greeted me and shared she returned from “Black lunch,” an informal meeting on campus with Black colleagues. We exchanged friendly banter and Dean Brown immediately led with brilliance, bravery, and vulnerability, evidenced in her responses. She spoke truth to power and named all the ways her identity as a Black woman shaped her experiences in student affairs. She was a powerhouse with a witty sense of humor, thoughtful answers, and a genuine love for her campus community. Her energy was contagious, and I felt an instant kinship with this sister. She spoke with strength and courage, and later she mentioned, “I was overlooked for this position.” She shared that her supervisor asked her colleagues to apply for her current position, whereas they asked her if she would serve on the search committee. Despite her outstanding credentials, her boss did not consider her for the role, which made her want it even more. Later, she discussed how she initially did not want the political position. However, she pursued and accepted the role for three reasons: (a) to resist being overlooked, (b) to advocate for both underrepresented and under-resourced students, and (c) to serve as an example for Black women on her campus. Near the end of our interview, after shared laughter and joy, she appeared frustrated. It was an emotion with which I was familiar; she was disappointed about not advocating for a higher salary. She completes all her work, does her job well, enlists extra duties, and exceeds expectations regarding her on-campus committee involvement. However, she receives minimal compensation. After our interview, I closed my laptop, grabbed my journal, and I sat in silence. Tears stained the pages of my reflexive journal as I thought about how Black women are underappreciated, underrepresented, and undervalued in student affairs workspaces and, while Dean Brown’s interview lasted approximately an hour, her story will remain a memory of mine for a lifetime.
Despite years of systemic oppression, Black women excel in all careers as authors, performers, athletes, caregivers, and teachers. However, we are often overlooked for leadership positions within higher education (Candia-Bailey, 2016). Over the last 400 years, Black women have battled sexism, racism, and classism to achieve significant gains in higher education as students, faculty, administrators, and college presidents (Bates, 2007; Blakesdale, 2006; Campbell & Jones-Deweever, 2014). Although Black women have made some progress, we continually experience neglect regarding advancement, professional development, salary, and mentorship opportunities, especially related to senior-level positions in student affairs (West, 2017a).
According to West (2019b), “Black women represent the largest population of minority student affairs administrators in degree-granting postsecondary institutions in the U.S., [yet we] remain significantly underrepresented when compared to white men and white women student affairs administrators” (p. 544). While Black women lead as the largest population of minority administrators, this statistic is not encompassing. Student affairs departments recruit Black women into entry-level positions, but there are other issues related to power, privilege, and oppression that impact our career trajectories, which some researchers contend, is a more significant issue (Alexander, 2010; Killian & McClinton, 2012; Mabokela & Green, 2001; Patitu & Hinton, 2003; Williams, 2019). Past research focused on Black women in student affairs, including those in both entry- and mid-level positions regarding their feelings of stress, invisibility, and loneliness in toxic work environments at predominantly White institutions (PWIs) (Clayborne & Hamrick, 2007; Hughes & Howard-Hamilton, 2003; West, 2017a, 2017b, 2017c). Additional literature suggests that Black women in student affairs experience isolation at work and struggle to feel included (Clayborne & Hamrick, 2007; Collins, 1986; Miles, 2012; West, 2017a). A phenomenon coined by Patricia Hill Collins (1986), the term “outsider-within” names the marginalized positions Black women encompass within higher education.
Although research related to Black women in senior-level student affairs positions exists, much of the literature is not published in peer-reviewed journals (e.g., Becks-Moody, 2004; Candia-Bailey, 2016; Miles, 2012). Further, much research related to Black women in higher education is over 10 years old and focuses on the experiences of faculty, mid-level professionals, and community college leaders (Clayborne & Hamrick, 2007; Henry, 2010; Moses, 1989; Mosley, 1980; Patitu & Hinton, 2003; Rusher, 1996; Tedrow, 1999). As Rankin (1998) asserted, “the history of Black women in higher education in the United States is a lesson in courage, persistence and overcoming adversity. It is also little-taught and inadequately researched” (p. 1). In response to the need for literature, this study explored the experiences of Black women in senior-level positions in student affairs at predominantly white institutions (PWIs). The research questions that guided this inquiry included: (a) How do Black women in senior-level student affairs positions navigate the intersections of racism and sexism? (b) What does social support look like for Black women in senior-level student affairs positions? (c) What are the barriers, if any, for Black women in senior-level student affairs positions? This study helps fill the gap in the literature regarding Black women in senior-level student affairs positions at PWIs.
According to Gregory (1995), “in spite of the high college enrollment and graduation rates, Black women in both faculty and staff positions continue to be concentrated among the lower ranks, primarily nontenured, promoted at a lower rate, paid less than their Black male and white female counterparts” (p. 11). Several factors influence the career trajectories of Black women in student affairs, including the intersection of race and gender, the “concrete ceiling,” isolating work environments, lack of support, and additional factors such as balancing work and family schedules (Growe & Montgomery, 1999; Hughes & Howard-Hamilton, 2003; Lloyd-Jones, 2009; Yakaboski & Donahoo, 2011).
Race and Gender
Since 2011, scholars in business and sociology have argued that Black women and Latinas encounter the “concrete ceiling,” which combines race and gender discrimination to delineate a double disadvantage, which is difficult to penetrate (Beckwith et al., 2016; Durr & Harvey Wingfield, 2011; Lach, 1999). Furthermore, Ngunjiri and Longman (2015) shared that “Women of Color historically have not been able to see through a concrete ceiling to catch a glimpse of a corner office” (p. 178). This excerpt alludes to the oppressive forces such as racism, sexism, and classism that simultaneously work to complicate Black women’s pursuits of leadership opportunities.
Moreover, Black women students, faculty, and administrators face additional barriers on college campuses due to stereotypes related to our race and gender (Candia-Bailey, 2016; Hughes & Howard-Hamilton, 2003). These stereotypes impact people’s desires to collaborate with us professionally. For example, Lais (2018) described how Black women in leadership positions in education are perceived as “aggressive, strong-willed, difficult to work with, or too pushy” (p. 1). Already seen as a threat to Whiteness, Black women in student affairs leadership positions described working in cold, unwelcoming, insensitive, and isolating environments with little room for professional development and growth (West, 2017a, 2017b, 2017c). Black women were not considered when PWIs were built (Jack, 2019; Wilder, 2013). Instead, colleges and universities prioritized the education of White clergymen (Thelin, 2019). Therefore, institutions systemically position Black women as outsiders within the academy and in leadership roles (Blakesdale, 2006; Candia-Bailey, 2016; Collins, 1986; Hughes & Howard-Hamilton, 2003; West, 2017c).
Lack of Support
Black women are also underrepresented in leadership positions due to a lack of support and mentorship (Alexander, 2010; Growe & Montgomery, 1999; Patitu & Hinton, 2003; West, 2017a, 2017b, 2017c, 2019b). For example, Growe and Montgomery (1999) found that Black women receive little or no encouragement to seek leadership positions while men, particularly White men, are “tapped” to pursue administrative roles to a greater degree than women. Men are provided the “professional grooming” necessary to pursue an executive leadership position while Black women are often overlooked and not considered. Their findings revealed that any Black woman who sought career advancement as a senior-level administrator in student affairs needed access to support systems, notably a well-rounded mentoring relationship. Having an effective support system aids in developing career opportunities and advancing in higher education (Patitu & Hinton, 2003; West, 2017b). Additionally, Black women, particularly those in student affairs, are “underrepresented and thus lack direct access to culturally similar colleagues, mentors, and role models in senior-level leadership positions,” which creates the need for safe spaces built by and for Black women (West, 2017b, p. 82). While having a support system is wise instruction, Patitu and Hinton (2003) provided little practical advice regarding how Black women can secure support. West (2017a, 2017b, 2017c) provided tangible examples of support for Black women and named NASPA’s African American Women’s Summit, along with counterspaces for professional development and mentorship. However, most of the examples center efforts made by Black women to retain themselves, with little focus on institutional responsibility.
Historically viewed as our families’ matriarchs, Black women continuously share stories of conflicting values between family and work (Collins, 1991). Jackson and Harris’s (2007) study regarding Black women college presidents revealed that working in higher education encompasses long hours and, often, a hectic work schedule. The extended hours can conflict with family life, which directly counters societal gender norms and patriarchy. Additionally, Black women have unique experiences regarding parenthood, as they have been stereotyped as bad mothers by the media, policymakers, employers, and in secondary education (Collins, 1991). Jackson and Harris (2007) found that Black women presidents mentioned dissonance related to navigating identities as caregivers and organizational leaders. Little research is available regarding how Black women navigate these roles concerning stereotypes around Black womanhood. Overall, the literature on Black women in student affairs emphasizes the ways in which stereotypes, rooted in racism and sexism, work to create isolating work environments, a lack of support from supervisors and colleagues, and challenges related to balancing work and family commitments (Growe & Montgomery, 1999; Hughes & Howard-Hamilton, 2003; Lloyd-Jones, 2009; Yakaboski & Donahoo, 2011).
Theoretical and Epistemological Framework
Developed by scholar Patricia Hill Collins (2000), Black feminist thought (BFT) serves as both the theoretical framework and epistemological underpinning for this study. As a theoretical framework, BFT is a valuable lens through which to view participant narratives because it helps explain and contextualize Black women’s collective standpoint in the United States. The need for BFT as a theoretical framework is essential, as the plight of Black women is often ignored and excluded from traditional feminist theories (Collins, 1986, 2000). BFT places a particular emphasis on self, family, and society while exploring six distinguishing tenets.
Tenets of Black Feminist Thought
The first tenet is the “distinctive group consciousness among Black women, known as the Black woman’s standpoint” (Collins, 2000; West, 2019a, p. 374). In other words, the Black woman’s standpoint is simply the lived experiences of Black women in the United States. Collins (2000) recognized Black women’s experiences as unique and identified Black women as both a cultural and political group. While Black women are not a monolithic group, we do share what West (2019b) called a “common bond” in how we experience racism, sexism, and classism in the United States (p. 546).
Second, while Black women face unique challenges in the United States, how Black women respond to oppression varies across individuals. Black women’s perceptions and reactions to oppression can vary widely depending on our social class, ethnicity, region, age, sexual orientation, religion, ability, and so forth (Collins, 2000; West, 2019a).
The third tenet of BFT is the interdependence of Black women’s thoughts and actions (Collins, 2000; West, 2019a). Based on this tenet, given our standpoint, Black women’s thoughts are often linked to our actions. Often as Black women, our individual and collective experiences with oppression materialize as acts of resistance. However, Collins (1986) challenged for more research to be conducted regarding how Black women’s thoughts and actions work to resist oppression.
The fourth tenet of BFT highlights the role of Black women researchers and our responsibility to define and contribute to the theory for ourselves and all Black women (Collins, 2000; West, 2019a). Further, Black women intellectuals play a key role in shaping the future of BFT.
The fifth tenet acknowledges the impact of the societal context on the construction, dissemination, and practice of BFT. As Collins (2000) argued, “neither Black feminist thought as a critical social theory nor Black feminist practice can be static; as social conditions change, so must the knowledge and practices designed to resist them” (p. 39). Said differently, Collins explained that as Black women’s realities and contexts shift, so should this theoretical framing and and its practical implications.
Lastly, the sixth tenet of BFT regards the commitment to social justice, which means “Black feminism requires searching for justice not only for U.S. Black women but for everyone” (Collins, 2000, p. 43). Considering these tenets, BFT provides language, context, and framing that help explain Black women’s oppression at work, in higher education, and everyday life. Furthermore, in this study, BFT provided a collective standpoint for Black women in student affairs and highlighted the various ways we resist oppression.
Another essential and overarching component of BFT is the concept of intersectionality (Combahee River Collective, 1986; Crenshaw, 1989). A philosophy coined by scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, intersectionality refers to forms of interlocking oppressions. Crenshaw (1989) argued that many Black women in the United States experience this phenomenon given how the intersection of racism and sexism expose them to a unique form of racialized sexism. All humans have multiple social identities, but only a subset experience oppression based on interlocking systems of oppression. Instead of examining gender, race, and class as separate systems of oppression, “intersectionality explores how these systems mutually construct one another” (Collins, 1999, p. 63). Thus, this research, framed by BFT, explicitly centered on Black women’s experiences in senior-level student affairs positions and considered their intersections of Blackness and womanhood.
As an epistemological stance, BFT is a mechanism that examines and critiques knowledge production and considers the questions, “What do you believe?” and “Who told you to believe it?” Furthermore, BFT is a standpoint and a theoretical framework that validates Black women’s ways of knowing through dialogue (Collins, 1986, 2000). BFT legitimizes the collective actions of Black women and centers our everyday lived experiences as activism (Collins, 1986, 2000). Collins posited that, regardless of our position in society, Black women, since arriving to the Americas, embody an activist tradition that legitimizes our sheer presence as resistance. Additionally, the use of Black feminist epistemology is essential because it “calls into question the content of what currently passes as truth and simultaneously challenges the process of arriving at that truth” (Collins, 2000, p. 271). Specifically, BFT as epistemology names Black women as agents of knowledge, whose lived experiences and dialogue function as meaning-making devices.
Using BFT as an epistemological worldview helped shape the methodological choices in this study. Specifically, using BFT helped me choose the research topic, craft the interview protocol, conduct interviews with participants, and analyze the data in this study. Furthermore, BFT as epistemology considered both an ethic of care and accountability within the research process. An ethic of care encouraged me to embody personal expressiveness, emotions, and empathy, which helped me avoid distancing myself from the Black women and their experiences. An ethic of care and accountability also inspired me to treat participants as my mothers, aunties, and friends, for whom I had deep reverence and respect. I not only embodied this care but the participants did as well. Black women who participated in this study met with me after hours, and we shared meals, books, podcasts, we took selfies, and we engaged in detailed campus tours. Listening to them as agents of knowledge, I believe each Black woman connected with me on a deeper level and in a more meaningful way. They shared their narratives with a level of comfort beyond how they would talk to a stranger. We exchanged stories, laughed, cried, and became extremely vulnerable with one another. At one point in my reflexive journal, I wrote, “I’m an outsider and doctoral student, yet each person chatted with me like an old friend, mentee, or sorority sister. I’m honored to be in a field with such friendly and down-to-earth professionals.” BFT as an epistemological stance helped me genuinely engage with Black women participants, not as a researcher but as a sister in student affairs.
Employing BFT as both a theoretical framework and epistemological underpinning, narrative inquiry served as this study’s methodology. Narrative inquiry complements BFT by preserving the collective “herstories” of Black women and allowing us the opportunity to share multiple perspectives and realities (Alston & McClellan, 2011; Josselson, 2011), using a dialogical approach to research. Clandinin and Rosiek (2007) shared, “the focus of narrative inquiry is not only on individuals’ experience, but also on the social, cultural, and institutional narratives within which individuals’ experiences are constituted, shaped, expressed, and enacted” (p. 42). By encouraging participants to share their own stories, Black women felt validated in their experiences, shed light on injustices, and helped shift the field of student affairs; thus, this narrative inquiry study was social justice work (Collins, 2000; Mertens, 2009). Using narrative inquiry, this study centered Black women’s knowledge as truth and named them as the experts in their own lives (Appadurai, 2006).
To recruit participants, I sent an e-mail to a Black student affairs listserv and my network. I also included a call for nominee advertisement on my LinkedIn page and assumed that those who were nominated might investigate my credentials. Inclusion criteria required participants who: (a) identified as a woman; (b) identified as having Black/African descent, which included African American, Caribbean, African, Afro-Latina, or a race otherwise connected to the African Diaspora; (c) identified as an employee at a PWI; and (d) identified as a senior-level administrator in student affairs. In this study, those defined as senior-level student affairs administrators generally reported directly to university presidents and held titles such as dean of students or vice president or chancellor for student affairs (Tull & Miller, 2009). However, due to the marginalization of Black women in higher education institutions, for this study, senior-level administrators also included those who shared adjectives such as “assistant” or “associate” within their workplaces. Additionally, given the small number of Black women in senior-level student affairs positions, purposive strategies, including criterion and snowball sampling, were used to identify respondents (Esterberg, 2002). Those interested in participating contacted me by e-mail to nominate others or themselves. All nominated individuals were emailed and asked to recommend a colleague, peer, or friend who matched the research criteria. I asked that they shared the name, title, university, and e-mail address of each nominee (Clayborne & Hamrick, 2007). If someone nominated a participant, I shared the nominator’s name to encourage participation. A total of 19 Black women were nominated, and 7 individuals agreed to participate in this study. All participants selected pseudonyms for both their names and their institutions (see Table 1).
Table 1 Participant Demographic Information (Table view)
|Title||Years in the field||Artifact|
|Dr. Jenna Ariel||Ariel
|Associate Vice President for Student Affairs||30+||Glass piano on her desk|
|Assistant Dean of Students||10+||Sips Tea Mug from Black woman colleague|
|Dr. Carla Fitzgerald||Fitzgerald
|Associate Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs||30+||Women of Color lapel pin and NASPA Black Women’s Summit pin|
|Dr. Sabrina Haskins||Haskins
|Dean of Students||20+||“You’re a gem” thank you note from a Black woman faculty member|
|Dr. Amber Lilly||Lilly
|Vice-Chancellor for Student Affairs||20+||Bible and Picture of family|
|Vice President for Student Affairs||30+||Picture of late husband|
|Dean of Students||20+||Picture of daughter and niece|
The invitation to interview included a demographic questionnaire completed before the interview. Each participant completed one semi-structured interview, which lasted between 60 and 90 minutes. The semi-structured interview allowed for a conversational approach to standardized open-ended questions (Patton, 2015). This flexibility allowed me to ask questions, which were not a part of the interview protocol, depending on participants’ responses. Overall, the interview questions encouraged participants to tell their stories, as Black women in senior-level positions, using the tenets of BFT (e.g., variations in individual accounts, the interdependence of thought and action, and connection to social justice). Topics covered in the interview protocol included their journey through student affairs (e.g., Walk me through your journey in student affairs.), support in career advancement (e.g., Tell me about your support system as you moved up the professional ladder.), and barriers in career advancement (e.g., What specific obstacles, if any, did you deal with as you progressed through your professional career in student affairs?). I conducted one semi-structured interview with each participant, given their demanding schedules. In total, seven interviews were completed, including two face-to-face interviews, two telephone interviews, and three virtual interviews using video technology.
To offer a different perspective and contribute additional data, I asked each Black woman to contribute an artifact that represented social support in their current role. Within the interview protocol, I asked, (a) What did you bring? and (b) What is the story behind this item? Participants then told stories related to the artifacts and how the item or items contributed to the support they received. Norman (2008) noted the unique nature of artifacts as an easily accessible but often overlooked data method “that provides key insights into how people live, what they value, believe, their ideas, and assumptions” (p. 25). As a supplemental data collection method, the artifacts provided a more in-depth perspective regarding social support for participants.
All seven interviews were transcribed using a transcription service. Each Black woman’s dialogue, along with her artifact(s), was embedded into the interview transcripts. Artifacts were analyzed within interview transcripts to understand each artifact’s context and meaning based on participants’ descriptions and contexts. While there are various approaches to analyze narrative thinking, I used Riessman’s (2008) thematic narrative analysis to focus on “what” was being shared during each interview. First, I listened to each interview three different times in its entirety. I studied the intricacies of participants’ words, pauses, and sighs. To be respectful and invoke an ethic of care, I surrounded myself with notes and photographs from the interview. I listened for context, without analyzing, to immerse myself and fully understand each Black woman’s story and acknowledge the importance of each narrative. Using thematic analyses helped to focus on each interview and keep each Black woman’s variation and uniqueness intact. After revisiting each person’s story many times, I created a digital profile for each participant. All seven Black women’s profiles included their demographic information, relevant themes, artifacts (photograph or description), notable quotes, and notes from each transcript’s margin. Once the profiles were created and edited for clarity and consistency, I studied each participant’s profile and searched for similarities and differences across the narratives. While building each profile, I utilized in vivo coding and gathered emergent themes from direct quotes. I highlighted emergent patterns related to participants’ collective standpoint and interconnectedness in student affairs.
After creating the list of emergent patterns, I made notes about reoccurring themes in my reflexive journal. Writing these themes helped organize my thoughts and manage any discrepancies. Additionally, I discussed different interpretations of the data as well as emotions with my doctoral committee, which included two Black women and one Black man who previously worked as student affairs practitioners. As mentioned by Riessman (2008), “particular cases [were] then selected to illustrate general patterns –range and variation—and the underlying assumptions of different cases [were] compared” (p. 57). The emergent themes are included in the findings section of this article.
Overall, it is critical to be transparent, vulnerable, and consistent to ensure trustworthiness and credibility to this research process. Creswell and Poth (2017) recommended using multiple approaches to the qualitative research process to ensure the researcher’s ability to assess the accuracy of the findings. To be transparent, I use the pronoun “our” instead of “their” when referring to Black women (Collins, 1986). This decision embedded me into the research instead of distancing me from it. Also, BFT, as the epistemological frame, encouraged me to place my concrete experiences into the text. At the beginning of each interview, to build rapport, I shared a brief overview of my journey through student affairs, particularly at PWIs, and I highlighted my positionality and relevant stories. Aside from my positionality, I also engaged in member checking and asked participants to read and comment on the study’s themes and emergent findings. Given the participants helped create knowledge by sharing their stories with me, I wanted to honor their voices and receive their feedback. To be cognizant of potential additional labor for the participants, I sent a short list of findings, by e-mail, to each participant to respect their schedules, and I included a separate, more detailed attachment. Subsequently, I received three responses in return, which included messages from two participants who praised the interview process, conversation, and accuracy of the findings. Another participant asked that I change part of her narrative and include a component related to her supervisor, and I agreed. In addition to member checks, I collected all research-related documents and kept a reflexive journal with my handwritten notes, voice notes, and photographs to document my experiences. This included deeply emotional conversations with participants regarding joy and sorrow. Journaling also helped me reflect on the data collection process, along with the pitfalls and successes. Keeping research-related documents and a detailed reflexive journal helped create an audit trail to maximize confirmability (Lincoln & Guba, 1985).
Considering work by Lacy (2017) and Williams (2019), I chose not to label this section limitations; rather I choose to use study bounds. The use of the term “limitations” was developed from a positivist paradigm and a deficit lens (Lacy, 2017; Williams, 2019); however, the term “study bounds” honors the labor and narratives of the Black women in this study. For this project, there were two study bounds. First, using a nomination process to recruit participants yielded a significant interest in this qualitative study and helped participants trust the process, given other Black women colleagues and friends nominated them. However, by using a nomination process, some Black women might have been overlooked for participation in this study. Second, I experienced some challenges with the artifacts shared by the participants. While the artifacts contributed to providing a more in-depth story related to each participant’s experience, I did not capture photographs of the artifacts during the phone interviews. Additionally, I could not share pictures of the artifacts in this manuscript due to issues of confidentiality.
As a Black woman, I was raised, mentored, and nurtured by Black women, who included mothers, aunties, church members, and friends. Therefore, I approached this work with belief that the knowledge Black women share is credible and separate from white patriarchal ways of knowing. Being both Black and woman shapes how I view the world and the work I want to contribute to student affairs and higher education. I wanted to understand Black women’s experiences in senior-level student affairs positions, as I have not interacted with many Black women in these leadership roles. Having more than 10 years of experience in student affairs, 3 years at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and 7 years at PWIs, I have often struggled with being one of the few Black women administrators in my office and division at PWIs. I often felt like an outsider within my unit, and I was consistently underpaid and denied advancement. For example, I once held a position as coordinator for diversity. In this hybrid student and academic affairs position, I was responsible for facilitating diversity initiatives, student organization programming, and a growing list of responsibilities no one else took responsibilities for. In addition to my duties, I served on a leadership team with White peers who all had director and or dean titles, which meant they all received significanctly higher salaries that I did. I advocated for myself to receive a promotion and the help of a graduate assistant, but it was to no avail. Before transitioning out of the position, I created a detailed job description and a thorough succession plan to later learn that my successor was a White woman who earned the title of director, received a 20,000 USD pay increase, and the help of a graduate assistant.
Furthermore, throughout my student affairs journey, I have constantly been mistaken for other Black women, I have been told my hair looks better straight rather than in its natural curl pattern, I have been interrupted during meetings, and I have had my experiences with racism and sexism invalidated. To seek support in my isolating work environments, I attended professional development workshops, conversed with friends, and read countless articles to address my concerns. After my discussions with other Black women, I would feel revived, but my feelings were short-lived and my frustrations returned shortly after. In moments of despair, when I have been ready to quit the field altogether, I contacted a few senior-level Black women with hope they would mentor me. Without fail, most Black women shared that they were too busy managing campus politics, multiple service responsibilities, or the busyness of their personal lives to help me. What drives me to remain in student affairs is the opportunity to positively impact the field. Therefore, this research allowed me to speak directly to Black women in senior-level positions to gain insight into their experiences and determine what helps them persist and cope.
In this study, Black women described how they navigated their roles as senior-level student affairs administrators at the intersections of both racism and sexism. Using three research questions, grounded in BFT, I outlined patterns across the Black women’s narratives regarding student affairs. Describing their everyday experiences, support networks, and barriers faced, seven Black women shared their collective standpoint as senior leaders at PWIs. Based on the research questions and the collective narratives of seven Black women, three themes emerged: (a) “We are better than they are because we have to be”: Tales of Black women as chronic overachievers, (b) “You don’t need a mentor; you need an advisory board”: Find multiple streams of support, and (c) “What do I do next?”: Hope, uncertainty, and reimagining the future.
“We are Better than They are because We Have to Be”: Tales of Black Women as Chronic Overachievers
In navigating the intersections of racism and sexism (Research Question 1), participants collectively shared, “We are better than they are because we have to be.” All seven participants’ narratives suggested that the intersection of being Black and woman created a need to perform better than their colleagues, especially White colleagues. Aside from naming countless years of experience, degrees, and certifications, which made them more than qualified for their roles, participants also named the additional labor, both physical and emotional, they felt responsible for, including advocating for all students, especially Students of Color. Participants also recounted many leadership qualities they embodied, including exceptional productivity, strategic insight, detailed precision, and an ethic of care. Dr. Ariel helped assign language to this phenomenon when she described Black women using the following words: “We can think, we can write, we can create, and many times we are better than they are because we have to be.” The idea of “being better” materialized in two ways, including the personification of “superwoman syndrome,” which resulted in workplace burnout, and the notion of us “killing ourselves.”
In addition to their qualifications and the concept of “being better,” all participants shared a collective consciousness to serve and save everyone around them, including students, colleagues, and family. Dr. Lilly discussed how Black women are socialized to embrace the superwoman archetype (Harris-Perry, 2011; Thomas et al., 2004; West et al., 2016; Woods-Giscombé, 2010).
Particularly as Black women, we’re viewed as all things to all people. I mean, some of our White counterparts don’t understand that. They don’t have that sort of expectation from people. We’ve got to know all the Students of Color. We’ve got to know all the White students. We need to know all their names. We need to be at everybody’s events and programs. When our White counterparts—they don’t, they just don’t— and they don’t get it. We have to play the roles—of mom, grandma, auntie, counselor, and teacher all at once. And my other counterparts just—they don’t understand that there’s just a different cultural role that has come to be expected of us.
When asked where this expectation comes from, Dr. Lilly discussed the enslavement experiences of Black women in the Americas. She stated,
Well, I think it goes back to our history, it goes back to the past, the slave days, it was the [Black] women who took care of everything. We not only had to take care of the house, making sure stuff was right in the fields, and nursing and taking care of the slave master’s family. But we had to take care of our own family too. We were the ones who were involved with any type of church. So, we kind of had that expectation— and we do things well. So, we’ve been socialized and expected most of the time—Black women are gonna step up—they’re going to be multi-taskers, they’re going to be very competent, they’re going to go above and beyond. It’s that superwoman syndrome. We gotta turn that around.
While excelling in the field and striving to be “all things to all people,” some participants discussed feeling burnt out and encompassing negative health implications while in their leadership roles.
“We Kill Ourselves”
Three participants discussed their health, in detail, and shared how taking on too many responsibilities has led to their exhaustion and burnout. Dr. Haskins mentioned,
As dean of students, it says in my job description to be visible on campus … And there’s this constant battle of what does visible mean? So, my first couple of years here … I was trying to be at everything because I wanted to be visible. I wanted to let students know that I was here. I was supportive. So, I would get here at 8 o’clock and leave at 11. And I think I’m still feeling the effects now of doing that. So, I think I burned out but kept going, not putting a name to it. So now I’m recovering from that.
Furthermore, the experiences of burnout were significant for most participants. Two participants specifically named how unchecked exhaustion materialized into both mental and physical health issues. They described this overwhelming “need to serve” as having an impact on their health and well-being. Dr. Lilly shared, “we kill ourselves. We’re not taking care of ourselves; I know too many of my sister VPs right now who are going through some medical issues because we are not taking care of ourselves.” Similarly, Dean Brown described how she fights to care for herself:
I got to the point where I said, I am building therapy into the workday. If you want me to use sick time, I’ll use my sick time, but I’m going to; I need to because I’m not going to go afterward, and I’m not going to prioritize it if I can’t just get it in here. And with my therapist, I’m talking about what are the restorative pieces of self-care, those maintenance pieces, but also I’m just trying to figure out what even brings me joy outside of the work because I’ve built this whole identity around serving other people—and I think that’s Black women period.
Overall, the idea of being better, discussed by the participants, encompassed the notion that Black women show up in student affairs workplaces and often feel the need to be all things to all people. Participants’ narratives illustrated that we falsely believe that we have to work harder than others, have exceptional productivity, and often spend time making other people feel comfortable. The result of this additional labor is demonstrated as us having superwoman syndrome, experiencing burnout, and eventually quitting the field.
“You Don’t Need a Mentor; You Need an Advisory Board”: Find Multiple Streams of Support
Many participants discussed the need to have multiple sources of support, and Dr. Ariel captured the essence of the conversation when she stated, “you don’t need a mentor; you need an advisory board.” Many participants felt like outsiders-within at their institutions. All participants expressed feelings regarding being the “first” or “one of the few” or the “only” Black woman and the stressors around their marginalized identities. Vice President Marshall echoed this sentiment and said that although her institution had a significant Black student population, she found herself “sitting at the [leadership] table alone.” Given the isolation associated with being one of the few Black women in senior leadership, each participant embodied tenets of BFT and used their capacities to cultivate the communities they needed to survive (Collins, 2000). While they received minimal support within their institutional spaces, most participants resisted gendered racism and found the help they needed elsewhere. Dr. Ariel described it as such:
You have to find a support system … you don’t need a mentor; you need a board. You need an actual board of people, an advisory board because no one person can give you everything you need. So, there are those people on my job that I know I can go to when I need to. But I also have a support system in my church, and I have a support system of my family … People who will look at you and say you are worth your weight in gold, and that this too will pass … and that problem that you overcome is going to make you that much stronger.
All seven participants described their “advisory boards,” sister circles, and support systems who included colleagues from other departments, faith, family, and community. While these “advisory boards” varied, depending on each woman’s standpoint (e.g., religious affiliation, geographic region, sorority membership), participants named their support as resistance.
While sometimes feeling isolated in their offices, Black women created their own support at work with colleagues and friends both inside and outside the academy.
Dean Brown found support from a Black woman colleague, and she showed me a “sips tea” mug, which reminded her of support in the Orange University’s Black Networking Group. When describing the cup, she shared the following narrative:
It was given to me by really one of my most supportive colleagues and friends. And so, when I think about support … I usually think of her … of the importance of having that network of people who get you and who you can just, sit down and sip some tea with … I had a meeting with some colleagues, and we had Black lunch, where it’s just a bunch of us … and one Black man. This is our time to be together and fortify each other or complain about stuff that other people wouldn’t understand. We talk about therapy, we give recommendations on church, you know, whatever it is. And so, when I think about that mug, I think about that experience and how that really is necessary and it has kept me here on the days when I have been like, listen, after lunch, I’m just going to go home and not come back.
Aside from colleagues in student affairs, participants named additional sources of support, including faculty members, such as a Black woman professor who gave Dr. Haskins a “you are a gem” thank you note during her first few weeks on the job, a White woman professor who Vice President Marshall named as her “ride or die” friend, and a Black man chaplain who encouraged Dr. Ariel to find peace at work by playing the chapel piano. Administrative support staff members were also named as additional sources of encouragement. Specifically, Dr. Haskins named her administrative support person who faithfully reminded her to eat lunch and use the restroom between meetings. Additionally, Vice President Marshall’s administrative assistant showed support by shutting the door so Marshall could complete doctoral coursework.
Further, Dr. Lilly and Dean Terry mentioned receiving necessary support from former colleagues and graduate school cohort members using Marco Polo video chats and planning annual vacations, which helped keep them motivated during difficult work seasons.
Describing their overall experience in student affairs as either “divine intervention” or “God’s plan,” many participants discussed how their faith and prayer kept them grounded. Dr. Ariel also mentioned how she approaches her work environment using her faith. She described how she enters each meeting and said,
I enter every meeting, imagining that God is holding my hand, and we’re walking in together. And if I feel that I’m not strong enough or in that moment, I can say in my head, “God, it’s okay. Cause I know you got this.” And there are times that I will talk, and honestly, when I’m finished talking, I realize that He has been talking through me.
Although avoided in Western-eurocentric work conversations, three of the Black women in this study were not afraid to name their faith and or spiritual beliefs as core values related to their persistence in leadership.
In addition to their support at work and their connection to faith and spirituality, Black women also sought help from family members, particularly partners, parents, siblings, children (biological and adopted), and nieces and nephews. Vice President Marshall, whose anniversary with her late husband was on the same day as our interview, shared his picture as her artifact. She reflected on how great of a supporter he was to her in her personal life, at work, and during her doctoral journey. She recalled a memory they shared and said,
It was Valentine’s Day weekend, and I had a paper due. And so, I’m trying to do all this stuff … with me and my husband, and we had booked the hotel and everything. I said I’m just going to cancel because I gotta get this work done. Then he said, no, you go. I went to the hotel at the beach and worked the whole weekend … I didn’t have to worry about anything. So that is genuine love and support. So, I am happy that he did know before he passed away that I passed my proposal defense, and I think I tried to tell him that I got IRB approved. I think he heard it, but I’m not quite sure.
For all participants, family members served as a support system and helped create boundaries for them outside of work, provide comfort, tough love, and they remind participants to stay motivated to reach their goals.
Black women in this study also shared being engaged in their community by serving as Girl Scout troop leaders, sorority sisters, church organizers, community activists, and musicians. While they might be seen as outsiders at work, they created space for themselves by doing service and community outreach. Dr. Ariel mentioned playing the organ at her church, being part of a dance group, and playing a significant role in her sorority. Additionally, Dr. Fitzgerald fondly recalled her experiences outside of work that brought her joy. She shared,
I have other things, so I’m active in my sorority, I’m in another group … a social civic group. We have a brunch tomorrow, bringing in some new members, and I’m also involved in my church. And then I’m involved as vice president for an agency that deals with homelessness … that keeps me busy.
Dr. Lilly and Dean Terry both mentioned their commitment to Girl Scouts of America. Dr. Lilly shared that, on top of her work commitments and parenthood, she was also “a Girl Scout troop leader for sixth- to eighth-grade cadets.” Dean Terry shared that she was wearing several hats at work and home when she said, “I’m chaperoning my daughter’s Girl Scout trip next week, so I need to get my life together so I can pack and get us both out of town.” Thus, while busy with work commitments, participants found joy and much-needed support outside of work. Overall, the participants highlighted the importance of finding their circle of support or advisory boards while in leadership positions. They discussed finding spaces that uplift them when they need it most. As many participants called on Black women colleagues for support, they also advised looking for support in unlikely places such from non-Black colleagues, administrative support personnel, graduate cohorts, and spaces outside of work such as civic clubs and religious institutions.
“What Do I Do Next?”: Hope, Uncertainty, and Reimagining the Future
Finally, when I asked participants about the barriers or challenges faced at work (Research Question 3), four participants discussed difficulties navigating future career outcomes in student affairs. Collectively, participants asked, “what do I do next?” Although Black women in this study faced various successes in their work, they tried to determine the next steps in their careers. Dr. Haskins shared, “I’ve gotten to the point—I think 20 years has been enough, but now it’s the what’s next? Because this is what I’ve done … what I know … what I’m known for … what I’m counted on for. So now, what do I do next?” For two Black women leaders, the next step included retirement. Still, others seemed uncertain of the future and named two possible ways to move forward: outlasting in the field or opting out of student affairs, altogether (Williams, 2019).
Some participants did not name a concrete goal for the future; they discussed a desire to remain in the student affairs field because of their love for their students, colleagues, and the field itself. They discussed being hopeful for the future and giving institutions time to change. Dr. Fitzgerald explained the difficulty of working in student affairs during rough political seasons but discussed being patient for change. She shared,
It’s been a tough year for students, faculty, and staff. It’s like, where is the sense of belonging for diverse student populations on campus? Plus, we are trying to please multiple masters of state legislators, board of governors, system office, alumni, parents who are all well-connected … And so it’s been a pretty contentious this year … But when you’ve been in the field as long as I have, then you know, things come in cycles, and so, you’ll hit a rough patch, but it’s not going to be like this forever … We just have to be patient … We have to remember that people do great work here.
Meanwhile, Vice President Marshall mentioned being pushed out of student affairs and placed into a new vice president role on campus. While she looked forward to the transition, she described the experience of having a White man predecessor, who has no experience in student affairs. She said,
I want to transition out because—I’ll be very honest, I’ve been worn out here. What student affairs is supposed to be is not what it is. I don’t feel like student affairs is being taken seriously. I don’t feel that I’m being taken seriously. I think a lot of times, I suffer through the whole, “go play with the kids” sort of thing. And you keep cutting my budget, cutting my staff. You think you know what’s best and instead of having your V.P. be someone with a level of expertise, the person that’s coming in behind me has no experience whatsoever … You just don’t walk in here and you go straight to the top and you’ve never been on call. You’ve never done a case; you know nothing about student development.
Naming her transition as a much-needed change, Vice President Marshall was not the only participant to re-imagine the future. Dean Brown also shared she may potential opt out of higher education and into nonprofit management. When asked about the future, Dean Brown mentioned,
I’m still kind of at a place where I’m trying to figure out what [the future] really looks like and what I will truly be happy doing. Cause I’m trying to prioritize my own joy. I like the work that I do, but I hate my job. I’m trying to figure out how to marry the two again because I used to love my work and my job. So, I would like to get back to that.
After years in the field, VP Marshall and Dean Brown were re-envisioning how the future could look outside of their current position, while the other participants questioned how to outlast or make a change in their current work environment. Regardless of being pushed, opting out, or deciding to outlast in student affairs, many participants in this study communicated the benefits of having Black women in leadership roles, which is further explored in the conclusion.
In this study, Black women in senior-level student affairs positions navigate the intersections of racism and sexism with both expertise and finesse, but they are exhausted. Participants mentioned having to speak on behalf their race; being harshly blamed when they made small mistakes; and having to work “twice as hard” to appear credible to colleagues, which confirms past literature regarding Black women’s experience around loneliness and isolation at PWIs (Clayborne & Hamrick, 2007; Collins, 1986; Hughes & Howard-Hamilton, 2003; West, 2017a, 2017b, 2017c). Having earned educational credentials and prestige, participants worked overtime and inhabit multiple roles with students, parents, faculty, and staff, as a counselor, friend, and leader. Although their countless work hours show dedication to the field and a responsibility to others, it also places additional labor upon them that other colleagues were not asked to shoulder.
Several participants described combating stress and isolation at work by creating their own counterspaces (West, 2019b) on campus and in their communities. In this study, senior leaders named national groups such as NASPA’s African American Women’s Summit, along with Black lunch groups, and Black digital spaces such as Marco Polo and Facebook groups. Additionally, participants also named the need to have their own “advisory board” of friends, faith-based support, family, and community engagement as much-needed anchors during difficult times. Centered in BFT and previous research, Black women used self-initiated strategies, such as formal and informal support networks (Henry, 2010; Hughes & Howard-Hamilton, 2003; West, 2017a, 2017b, 2017c) to help them resist the everyday challenges they faced within student affairs (Collins, 2000). While having supportive spaces seemed necessary, having to create these spaces, in addition to performing work duties, result in increased burnout that impacts participants’ overall health and well-being. Future studies should explore Black women’s ideas regarding labor, radical self-care, wellness strategies, and healing. Particularly, research should center joy and restoration for Black women outside of labor and service. Additionally, future research should explore the impact of being overworked on health, relationship, and familial outcomes for Black women in student affairs.
Further, the pressure to succeed and to serve everyone seemed so ingrained in participants that, although they had all achieved notable success in their careers, based on Western standards, many had not noticed that they “arrived.” Several participants reached all their goals; however, they were too busy to notice what they achieved. Future studies should explore Black women leaders and their values related to achievement and success.
Using BFT as a framework for this study helped to center Black women’s voices and allowed for the interrogation of central questions facing Black women as a collective cultural and political group. Based on six tenets related to community, domination, activism, resistance, and knowledge production (self-definition and self-valuation), BFT helped me interpret and understand the research findings (Collins, 2000). For example, using BFT allowed me to embrace the historical and cultural experiences related to U.S. Black women and labor, further conceptualizing ideas regarding work, servitude, and perpetual marginalization both at home and at work. Our interconnectedness, as Black women, helped me understand what the participants communicated with their facial expressions when words were too painful to share. Having a framework that centered the collective standpoint of Black women helped to make sense of their narratives and move toward implications for practice.
Implications for Practice
Although it is important to name that Black women are not a monolith, participants shared a collective standpoint that can inform policies and practices. While these implications are suggestions for moving forward, they cannot and will not be effective unless institutions enact structural change and tackle overarching systems of racism and sexism that work together to create barriers for Black women at work and in society, at large.
First, institutions must consider having a critical mass of Black women in positions of power, including senior-level positions, middle and entry levels, faculty, boards of directors, and alumni groups. As Black women continue to grow as the largest population of minoritized and marginalized students and administrators (West, 2019b), institutions must respond and find ways to recruit Black women to college campuses. No longer can excuses about lack of credentials serve as a reason for underrepresentation, as Black women are more educated than ever before. Instead, institutions should audit their hiring and supervisory practices and consider ways to recruit, promote, and retain Black women in all functional areas and position levels.
Second, institutions must provide systemic ways to support and uplift Black women on their campuses. Dr. Haskins said, “at NASPA, we have a panel … an African American sisterhood, and we connect there. But that’s about it; we have other personal connections, like going to lunch, but that’s it, and institutions don’t provide us any systemic support to keep going.” As Dr. Haskins communicated, Black women should not be solely responsible for supporting ourselves. Institutions should create funded opportunities for Black women to connect with and support each other. If campuses already have initiatives aimed to mentor or support Black women, more funding resources should be in place to help sustain these programs. Additionally, Black women need to be honored and rewarded for their labor in supporting others. We should be praised publicly and not only in diversity and equity spaces, and we should be celebrated through university-wide efforts. This should include financial rewards and promotions for our roles in retaining a diverse workforce.
Third, participants shared that higher education administrators and supervisors need to educate and train themselves regarding how to work more effectively with Black women colleagues and leaders, similar to how institutions engage and retain other marginalized groups. Black women need similar support. Dr. Fitzgerald shared an example of a cultural competency training she felt should be implemented regarding communication differences. She said, “if you are a person who’s passionate and when you speak, that passion comes through, plus you speak with your hands, and your tone gets escalated, that doesn’t mean you’re angry … you’re just passionate.” Thus, Dr. Fitzgerald communicated that supervisors and staff members should be trained on cultural competency, concerning working with Black women, and be held accountable when they uphold negative stereotypes in the workplace.
“If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” This quote, written over 30 years ago by the Combahee River Collective (1986) signifies why this study matters today. Every movement for equity and justice must be focused on the liberation of those most marginalized, and in freeing Black women, everyone benefits. Centering and supporting Black women in leadership roles in student affairs not only changes the campus dynamic for other Black women, but it also helps with overall student, staff, and faculty support and retention. All students and employees benefit from Black women in leadership and they also learn how to be supervised and mentored by Black women. Black women in senior positions are paramount because Black women can respond to the needs of all students, particularly marginalized students and employees. Having Black women leaders on campus helps other Black women persist because they represent tangible examples of success. Supporting the growth and development of Black women leaders on your campus is essential and should be prioritized.
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.
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