Equity and women of colour: Things are slow to change in the academy

March 10, 2010


Audrey Kobayashi, Queen's University
Guest Contributor

Women of colour remain severely underrepresented in Canadian academia. Notwithstanding employment equity policies that have been in place for at least two decades in most universities, they are still hired at levels way below their availability in the PhD pool in most disciplines. And those who make it into the hallowed halls consistently report that they experience consistent, debilitating, everyday racialization that places them at a disadvantage in comparison to their whiter peers, male or female.

We need to look both at the adverse systemic barriers to the full participation of all members of the academy and at the everyday conditions under which women of colour navigate the academy. All under-represented groups face systemic barriers. These include a lack of mentoring, reproduction of power structures, and the failure to address the normative basis of curricula and research programs.

As a result, those who fall outside the norm often are not considered for positions; they are unable to secure adequate support for cultural, social, or family circumstances; and there is a lack of effective, proactive employment equity programs to bring about substantive change. Notwithstanding considerable efforts and achievements of recent years, it takes a very long time to change the system and to mobilize the leadership, the resources, and the buy-in from the entire university community that will make sustainable change possible.

But the issues are not all about a system that lies above or beyond the reach of ordinary academic citizens.


Women of colour face personal, everyday experiences through which the normative values of whiteness are imposed upon them. A whiteness lens makes it very difficult for the majority to see or understand the experiences of women of colour. They are treated by some as exotic and fragile by some, and as inherently less intellectually or emotionally suited to academia by others. Women of colour are often held to higher academic standards or standards that are not appropriate. They are socially isolated, especially when they have the audacity to speak up about their experiences. They are subject to stereotypes and denigration. Or they are made invisible, as though their experiences do not matter, as though the principle of equality means that difference – even the difference created by racism – has no meaning at all.

It takes a long time to change attitudes, especially when so many of the white majority is either unaware of the issues or unwilling to confront their own biases. The emphasis on structural barriers can sometimes even impede progress in changing attitudes in the everyday environment. We often hear that people do not intend adverse effects, or that they do not think they are racist. That may be so. But the academy is not going to change very much until we manage both to address structural racism, and to shift the emphasis from what the white majority intends, or feels, as though good intentions will bring changes by some magic bullet. We need instead to foster thinking about how to listen, how to recognize and to respect the experiences of those racialized as different, and how to lift the veil of whiteness. Only when that shift occurs on a large scale will there be significant change for women of colour in the Canadian academy.

Dr. Audrey Kobayashi is Professor of Geography and Queen’s Research Chair, Queen’s University, Kingston.