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Updated: May 13, 2024 Outside the Box

Things change and more stays the same

A woman in a black jacket and polka dot shirt Bonnie J. Walker
To read Bonnie J. Walker's other Outside the Box columns, follow the links at the bottom of the article.
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In the 1980s, my father became the first Black person to chair the sociology department at Dartmouth College, an Ivy League college in Hanover, New Hampshire. When I was a child, I was surprised he had so many firsts as a Black person. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that so few people of color sat in leadership positions, but my perspective of the world was skewed because I was surrounded by successful professionals of color in my closest sphere of influence. What’s troubling is now, as a near-middle-aged adult, I am still hearing about company and institutional firsts, in 2024, for BIPOC leadership.

Institutions will post these announcements with pride; I read them cringing, thinking, “This is embarrassing, not boast-worthy.”

Dad was asked to serve on several committees and expected to oblige the requests. He wanted to do so because little or no faculty of color were represented on these committees, nor across leadership on both the faculty and administrative sides of the staff. He accepted these appointments, knowing he had little bandwidth to do so, especially with the pressure to publish mounting, as he pursued tenure. Today, this phenomenon of few people of color in leadership and limited representation at institutions of higher education and across industries continues at an alarmingly similar rate, nearly 40 years later. Still today, faculty of color are stretched to capacity and traditional tenure does not recognize many of the important things they are stretched to do, which their white colleagues are not. BIPOC folks experience this stretch and lack of reward and recognition outside of academia as well.

At one point in his 35-year appointment at Dartmouth, my father pursued and was offered a separate chair appointment from the dean’s office. At the time he applied for it, it came with a lifetime emeritus status. When the offer was extended, of which focused on human relations, it was offered to him as a four-year appointment. He was curious, angered, and frustrated, and he felt a sort of betrayal and belittlement from his colleagues who had changed the status parameters. Finally, a confidant of his, who had more insight, shared with him the time was shortened on the appointment because his colleagues really wanted him in the role, but that there was a donor base connected to the position, which was opposed to him receiving the chairmanship.

He was never explicitly told what their opposition was: Was it because they disliked him personally, or was it because he was Black? He was certain it was the latter. My father declined the offer. When he shared this story with me, I was of course taken aback by the dirty politics and angered by the injustice of it. What stood out to me the most was how badly it made my father feel. Describing it to me nearly 40 years later at 86 years old, the hurt in his voice was so raw, it was like it had just happened.

The only way to combat this social-organizational power pattern is to focus on diversifying our workforces. This shift will eventually alleviate not only the unbearable bandwidth stretch on professionals of color, but it will mitigate unconscious bias, which is a powerful, undeniable, unreliable mind force perpetuated from stereotypes. Unconscious bias is the prejudicial and unconsciously learned feelings we have towards other people, or groups of people, based on physical, cultural, or other differences. These biases reinforce cultural or racial stereotypes and affect a broad swath of decision-making processes in recruiting, hiring, promotions, and talent succession.

If we increase the number of BIPOC people in leadership positions across industries, we are more likely to build an ongoing access pipeline, and we will eventually shift the unconscious bias notion that people of color don’t belong in leadership positions.

Bonnie J. Walker, a Worcester resident, is principal diversity & inclusion officer at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington.

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