Poor mentorship at PhD level: A barrier to more Black female academics

Every year, reports are published highlighting the demographics in academia, and each year the results are similar. In South Africa, even though White men and women account for approximately 10% of the population, they collectively hold 50% of the research positions. Black women on the other hand, who are the majority of the productive population, hold only 12% of these positions. For Black women in countries where people of colour are minorities, the numbers are equally, if not more discouraging. As Linda Naicker said of Black women in academia: “Black men’s experiences are taken for granted as being the Black experience, and White women’s experiences are taken for granted as being the female experience”. Being a Black woman in academia means being silenced, and oppressed, by both sexist attitudes, and racism.

Several reasons have been cited for what is continuously holding Black women back. One such reason is the burden that women face in simultaneously raising families, and pursuing a demanding career in academia. Another reason is that both Black men and women face greater pressure to start earning decent salaries soon after their undergraduate degrees. Though the South African government has made many efforts, such as increasing funding opportunities for Black PhD students, there is still no perceptible shift among the upper echelons of academia. I believe that this is because we have not fully addressed the systemic barriers that Black women face in trying to obtain PhD degrees.

Recruitment bias is a stumbling block

The first barrier that Black women face on the road to becoming PhD graduates is acceptance into top research spaces. It is extremely competitive, funds are limited, and it takes more than good grades to stand out from the crowd. A study was published in 2012, whose aim was to determine if racial and gender prejudice play roles in how professors choose to mentor. 6,500 mock emails were sent out, in which students were seeking a meeting to discuss potentially doing a PhD. The professors were from the top 259 U.S. universities, and they spanned 89 disciplines. All the emails were essentially the same except for the names. The names gave a stereotypical indication of the race and gender of the students. Emails from women, Black people, and people of colour were ignored at a higher rate when compared to those from White males. Furthermore, the greatest discrimination was noted in business studies and the natural sciences. It is also noteworthy that it was not only White male professors who were negatively biased towards marginalized racial and gender groups. Though this was an American study, it is not far fetched that similar dynamics would be at play in a country like South Africa where racism and anti-Blackness is so pervasive and persistent.

Mentorship is key

Most successful people in any field will give credit to a mentor for helping them advance in their careers. For academics, the most influential mentor is often their PhD supervisor. But not all PhD supervisors are created equal, and one’s PhD supervisor does not necessarily become one’s mentor. PhD supervisors have an inordinate amount of influence on their students’ subsequent careers. The references they provide, in what is generally the small world of academia, can make or break one’s career. This power dynamic has both its advantages and disadvantages.

Studies in South Africa and the U.S. have cited poor mentorship, invalidation by faculty, and alienating racial cultures, as reasons why Black women do not complete their PhDs. Mentorship is complex, and requires a certain level of intimacy. Your mentor has to know your personal strengths and weaknesses, and guide you in how to play those to your advantage. Most importantly, mentors have to want to see you succeed.

Mentor outside your comfort zone

Mentor-mentee relationships are based on people genuinely connecting, and often it means fostering relationships outside of normal lab activities. If White professors are only mentoring and genuinely connecting with students who look like them, it is not a coincidence. It is understandable that people of different races and cultures may gravitate towards each other in the name of shared experiences and common mother tongues. However, when one is in a position of power and influence, there is an obligation to deconstruct both conscious and unconscious biases. The labour of mentoring Black women in academia is largely carried out by the small percentage of Black female professors. It is imperative that this work is shared, and it becomes a collective effort to actively seek out Black female mentees within departments, and faculties.

The first step to solving any problem is to acknowledge that it exists. Sidestepping conversations about race is not helpful. Neither is avoiding taking personal responsibility for the role one plays in creating a racially exclusive academic environment. Concerted efforts have to be made to do away with the inherent culture of marginalising people who are “other” in South Africa’s academic spaces.

Michelle Mukonyora

6 May 2020