Career strategies for Black women staff members in higher ed (opinion)

It is often tiring being a Black woman staff member in higher education. You are held to double standards, and as in many professional spaces, you are often compared to stereotypes such as the “angry Black woman” or enforcer.

For example, you are often primarily tasked with relaying difficult decisions or telling people no when others are too afraid to do so. People may often misinterpret your passion or even just your natural tone by assuming you are angry and unapproachable when you simply do not feel like performing or code switching.

Conversely, you are treated like the accommodating mammy stereotype, or “office mom,” consistently responsible for planning office social events and other tasks outside your typical work responsibilities. To make matters worse, you may not be adequately compensated or appreciated for that work. You must always be jovial and are often asked to wait for opportunities and sacrifice for other people. In addition, you may even be strategically denied well-deserved raises or opportunities to ascend to leadership roles because “you are just so good with helping people” or it is simply “not the right time.” You are told politely, “You are really good at your current job and seem to love it here. Maybe next fiscal year.”

The fact is, we are frequently overworked and severely underpaid. For many reasons, most Black women in higher education are concentrated in lower-level service-oriented roles as opposed to leadership roles. Efforts to rectify this situation are often reactionary as opposed to proactive—such as when a race- or gender-based crisis happens in society, and people in higher ed then suddenly push for quick, symbolic changes to save face.

Additionally, many Black women in higher education lack support from mentors and, more important, from sponsors, who are in the right rooms to advocate for you to move up into leadership roles. It can be difficult to navigate your career when you have little access to the cultural or social capital needed to progress in a profession that has few linear pathways to success. In other professions, it is more common to start off as an assistant and then advance to an associate role in a very linear, straightforward fashion. But higher ed is different. You may start off in admissions, then move to student affairs or serve in several coordinator roles—even though one role may give you more responsibility or pay despite the similar title. Navigating your career can be confusing. What do you do next? Where do you begin?

Here, I offer several recommendations for Black women in terms of career success. These recommendations are based on a 2020 qualitative study I conducted on the experiences and perspectives of 20 Black women staff members, whom I will refer to as experts, at one U.S. higher education institution.

Reflect upon and determine what you want. Consider who you are, what your values are and what you need in order to thrive in your workplace and career. Assess whether or not those values, wants and needs are present in your current role—or could be present with a bit of work and advocacy. What role, office or department would you like to move to next? What do you like about your current or previous jobs and workplaces? What, if possible, could be improved?

Strategically form and maintain relationships, including building coalitions. Identify people who support and champion you, and build on those relationships. The experts I interviewed recommended having a variety of mentors and not focusing exclusively only on other Black women or more senior colleagues. Key relationships are built not only with people at a higher level than you but also with your peers, as you never know where those peers will go. Maybe that fellow graduate of your education class or former co-worker will one day have a role where they can influence hiring decisions—and they may keep you in mind. If you have a specific role you are interested in, use your professional network or social media to find someone in that role both within and perhaps outside your university, and ask if they would be willing to discuss their experiences briefly.

The experts in the study also specifically mentioned the importance of relationships with not only other Black women but also non-Black women of color in your office. They told us that such intersectional relationships allowed them to decompress, have honest conversations about their experiences and gain helpful feedback.

Gain additional education and professional development. Many of the experts in the study used their tuition benefits to obtain additional degrees at the university. They also joined professional organizations related to higher education in general or Black women–centered organizations and attended their conferences. This not only aided the experts in their professional development but also allowed them to foster circles of support and even gain new mentors. Your supervisors may discourage you, citing budget concerns or a need for physical coverage in your office, but you should keep pushing for such opportunities.

Focus on outside-of-work passions. For the experts in the study, their work was not the only aspect of their lives that was meaningful. They leaned on religious affiliations, the support of their families (many mentioned the role of motherhood as significant) and outside work or hobbies. For example, one expert talked about how work issues were not as significant to them, because they were, in fact, more passionate about music. They viewed their role as “just a job,” which did not mean that they did not care about students or their work, but that their work did not define them. These passions helped them deal with and contextualize their experiences.

Also, the experts cited the importance of taking all your paid time off and sick days to avoid burnout. The work will get done whether you are there or not.

Take necessary risks and advocate for yourself. Many of the experts felt more comfortable challenging authority the longer they served in their roles. Once they observed how to best approach a situation, they would speak up when they were being taken advantage of or if they witnessed unfair behavior in the workplace. Champion yourself and know your worth, but do so guided by your observations and knowledge of office politics. Do not allow others to take you or your contributions for granted. Judiciously challenge norms and advocate for the opportunities you want.

To move up, strategically choose when to leave. If other approaches don’t work, you may have to begin looking for other roles—or, at least, to be open when new opportunities come to you. Many of the experts shared that when they stayed in their current role hoping for a promotion, the wait was long and arduous. Sometimes, just the thought of you potentially taking another offer will encourage people to recognize your value or somehow find that money to give you a raise. But if your goal is to ascend into leadership roles, you may appear more appealing when you gain outside experience, whether it is in a different department, university or even outside higher education. Maybe your supervisors simply need to see you in a different light. There is also never a right time to leave, so don’t let others discourage you if you believe that a move is what’s best for your career.

In conclusion, I hope this article offers some advice for Black women who are navigating jobs in higher education. But your path is entirely your own. Think about what you want out of your career, and then just go for it.

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