Women of color in academia address barriers to career advancement

Northeastern hosted more than 200 attendees on Friday for the second annual Women of Color in the Academy Conference, held in the Curry Student Center Ballroom. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Northeastern University on Friday hosted more than 200 women from Boston-area institutions for the second annual Women of Color in the Academy Conference, which focused on strategies to help women of color in academia achieve greater career success.

The daylong conference addressed barriers women of color face in career advancement in areas such as tenure and promotion, how to overcome those obstacles, and opportunities for increased networking. Workshop and panel topics included building interdisciplinary research teams, publicizing research and accomplishments, work-life balance, and teaching and classroom management with implicit bias.

“The conference focused on concrete strategies and techniques,” said Nicole N. Aljoe, associate professor of English and African American studies, who noted that this year’s attendance more than doubled the inaugural conference.

The conference grew out of a grant written by Aljoe and fellow Northeastern faculty member Barbara Guthrie—with the assistance of the ADVANCE office and its executive director Jan Rinehart—and was provided by the university’s Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion. Since that first conference, the initiative has expanded to feature more frequent professional and social events and efforts to continue advancing its goal.

The conference focused on concrete strategies and techniques.

Nicole N. Aljoe, Associate Professor of English and African American studies

One of the keynote speakers on Friday was Julie Chen, vice chancellor for research and innovation at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. She focused on building research networks and collaborations—specifically, how to do so, why they’re important, and how to not only participate but also lead these efforts. She underscored the value of having both mentors who provide guidance as well as sponsors who drive your career advancement.

Working in teams, Chen said, allows academics to share workloads, broaden their networks, and diversify their portfolios by exploring new areas and disciplines. “The beauty about academia is you have some choice, you have some control over what you want to work, and it’s multi and interdisciplinary problems that are the ones that are the most exciting because you have the greatest impact,” she said.

Julie Chen, vice chancellor for research and Innovation at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, delivers her keynote address. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Chen offered examples, based on her own experience, for how introverts can build their networks by looking for opportunities for repeated interactions with people—for instance, joining a committee or board—and by partnering with extroverts to complement each other’s strengths.

The morning keynote speaker, Zulma Toro, president of Central Connecticut State University, provided a historical perspective on institutional and societal barriers, and the ways in which gender, racial, and ethnic biases persevere. A central point of her address was that by sharing their stories, woman of color can empower their peers and colleagues. She issued an exhortation to attendees at the conclusion of her talk.

“There is not any doubt for us to eliminate the existing barriers and to realize the full potential of women of color in academia, we need to reflect on our own values, beliefs, and behaviors to ensure that they do not further stereotypes, prejudices, policies and practices, or a climate that discourages or excludes women who look like us,” Toro said. “We need to work on a cultural transformation. We need to change society’s traditions.”

This year’s conference was dedicated to the late Hope Lewis, the longtime law school professor whose teaching and scholarly work focused on human rights and economic rights in the global economy. She died in December 2016. “She offered models of the kind of engaged and thoughtful collegial support that has the power to make substantial interventions in the academy,” Aljoe said.