Invisible Labor in the Academy: The Experiences of Minoritized Faculty in Predominantly White Colleges and Universities
On August 22, 2019, the Office of the Provost, the Division of Diversity and Engagement, and Teaching and Learning Innovation proudly welcomed a campus visit from Dr. Christine A. Stanley, Professor of Higher Education, Ruth Harrington Endowed Chair, and Vice President and Associate Provost for Diversity Emerita, at Texas A&M University.
Dr. Stanley is well known for her expertise on faculty work-life and the ways in which workload allocations become inequitable for minoritized faculty members in predominantly white institutions (PWI). She has published extensively on these and related topics, including a recent book collecting the narratives of such faculty members (Stanley, 2006b), and an article analyzing the themes she found in their texts (Stanley, 2006a).
Dr. Stanley’s full-campus workshop drew on her years of experience as a leader in higher education, and on her recent work advancing and elevating the voices of faculty of color in PWIs. The workshop invited participants to consider the forms that invisible labor takes in higher education, how we all might be contributing to its prevalence for women faculty and faculty of color, and how we might work to distribute such work more equitably.
Invisible labor is the work that faculty members (and graduate students and staff) carry out without adequate formal acknowledgement or reward. It is therefore only too visible to those who undertake it, but not as visible to leaders or colleagues. It might be a feature of any faculty member’s workload, but research (including Stanley’s) suggests that it is a particularly prominent feature of faculty of color who are the minority in their departments or institutions.
- Definition: Poster et al. (2016) define invisible labor as “activities that occur within the context of paid employment that workers perform in response to requirements (either implicit or explicit) from employers that are crucial for workers to generate income, to obtain or retain their jobs, and to further their careers, yet are often overlooked, ignored, and/or devalued by employers, consumers, workers, and ultimately the legal system itself.”
- Inequity: Dr. Stanley argues that social and cultural processes assign work differentially by gender, race, ethnicity, and other demographics. These differences are based in part on implicit bias, and in part on structural problems related to institutional history, and appear in several forms.
- Institutional Housekeeping: Tasks coded as “feminine,” having to do with day to day functioning or “institutional housekeeping” are often assigned to women (Bird et al., 2004). This work is undervalued, and can constitute a barrier to retention and promotion (see also Acker, 1990; 2006).
- Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Work: Women and faculty of color tend to take on the work of improving higher education (Poster et al., 2016).
- Care Work: Women and faculty of color also engage in more “care work,” in teaching, mentoring, and advising (see e.g. Patton & Harper, 2003).
- Bias & Discrimination: Faculty of color also report disproportionate questioning of their research, in terms of merit, focus, and methods (Padilla, 1994)—and this results in “double doubt” (Griffin et al., 2011), compounding internal uncertainty with external pressures.
This situation generates stress and anxiety, and has consequences for mental and physical health (Poster et al., 2016). And, as of 2004, White faculty still made up 90% of tenured (associate or full) professors (American Association of University Women, 2004).
We All Contribute to Invisible Labor
We all contribute to invisible labor in many ways, Stanley argues, and she urges us to consider whether our institutions show signs of:
- Failure of administrators to protect faculty of color from having to serve on committees
- Devaluing the kinds of scholarship and activity that enhance diversity and inclusion
- Failure to train search committees adequately and inform them of the value of diversity and inclusion to the university’s mission
- Individuals’ failure of accountability for behavior that reinforces invisible labor
- Failure to take on the diversity and inclusion work that is everyone’s responsibility
Strategies for Responding
Dr. Stanley recommends several strategies for exposing / eradicating invisible labor:
- Listen to women faculty and faculty of color, via focus groups, surveys, and exit interviews
- Track data on the efficacy of interventions
- Continuously review policies and practices to ensure that they interrupt unconscious or conscious biases—implement “bias interrupters” (Williams, 2014)
- Add diversity-related work to tenure and promotion expectations
Beyond the Workshop
In addition to the public all-campus faculty/staff workshop, Stanley also led a working lunch with key leadership figures, including provost-level administrators, department heads, and members of the chancellor’s cabinet. This working lunch emphasized the need to solicit, accept, and protect the voices of those who find themselves in the minority in their departments, and particularly faculty, staff, and students of color across campus.
The Road Ahead
Despite the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, the path toward an even more equitable workload for all faculty continued with a virtual visit from Dr. KerryAnn O’Meara, who offered some opportunities to take steps toward the kinds of changes that Dr. Stanley suggested.