Women’s History Month

March 22, 2021 - Amanda Guinot Talbot, PhD and Liz Schondelmayer

Nwando Achebe

This Women's History Month, the Women's Leadership Institute is celebrating all of the women who are making history by breaking barriers, igniting change and making the world a better place. One of these women we are continually inspired by is Dr. Nwando Achebe.

Dr. Nwando Achebe is the Jack and Margaret Sweet Endowed Professor of History, and the Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Michigan State University College of Social Science. A lifetime academic, advocate and activist, Dr. Achebe's research centers around African feminism and she plays in active role in the fight to decriminalize homosexuality and end child marriage throughout the continent.

This month we celebrate women’s history month. As we look back on how far we have come as women leaders in the academy, what do you see as the way forward toward greater diversity, equity, and inclusion among the ranks of women leaders?

In University administration, gender intersects with race, resulting in an overwhelming number of Caucasians in administrative positions (86%), as compared to minoritized faculty in equivalent positions (7% Black, 3% Latinx, 2% Asian). In recent years, Caucasian women administrators have made significant gains, with minoritized administrators lagging significantly behind. In order to correct this, universities have to deal head-on with the underlying determinants of low representation of minoritized women academic leaders. One root cause of this disparity can be traced to the time of hire and the hiring of insufficient numbers of minoritized faculty. Minoritized women are also underrepresented in tenured and full professor positions, which in turn limits their opportunities to advance into formal academic leadership positions. Since access to academic leadership and administration is predicated on promotion to full professor, the policies related to RPT should be more transparent and equitable.

Beyond this, institutions must confront the dearth of minoritized women academic leaders head on. They need to understand what the current situation is, so that they can work to effect real change. They need to take an inventory of minoritized representation in leadership positions: are Black, Latinx, Asian, Indigenous women, and LGBTQ+ included or excluded in academic leadership positions? They must confront chilly university climates in which women of color persistently deal with suspicion and questions about their competency. Moreover, women of color in academic leadership often experience exclusion, condescension, isolation, and dismissal. They experience a lack of validation or appreciation; and many do not receive the credit due them. Women of color are also often positioned as token representatives. Those in leadership positions have reported having their successful ideas and programs appropriated by and credited to men or sometimes white women. Increasing the number of minoritized women in academic leadership positions thus means looking to institutions to model environments that encourage and support minoritized women who have aspirations for leadership. It is the work of all, not just women or minorities. Towards these ends, universities should create institution-wide metrics on numbers of minoritized women leaders the institution should aspire to have and work intentionally towards those goals. Institutions must also acknowledge that when there are women of color in high level and supported leadership positions, these women bring a diversity of perspectives that make universities better, and their presence conveys a sense of possibility for other aspiring minoritized future leaders.

The way forward also lies in addressing the grave underrepresentation of minoritized women among department chairs. Being a department chair encourages the development of skills and credentials and a track record of effectiveness as an administrator that in turn translates into preparedness for more senior leadership roles. The way forward lies in establishing family-friendly work environments and eliminating early morning and evening meetings that create disproportionate burdens for minoritized women with caregiving roles. The way forward lies in offering formal and informal mentoring and leadership development opportunities for minoritized women faculty. Minoritized women are often excluded from the informal leadership networks. The decreased access to informal networks reduces mentorship and increases marginalization of women of color faculty. Current leaders should serve as mentors, support the achievements of minoritized women faculty, and offer advice for advancing minoritized women into academic leadership.

As a woman of color who has risen to a place of influence in the academy, what advice do you have for the diverse women leaders and their allies coming behind you?

I never thought that I would become an academic administrative leader. The academic/scholarly side of things was well known to me, as both my parents were University Professors. I was keenly aware of the sexual politics present in academia through the experience of my mother, who had become one of the first female full professors at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. So, I knew what I had to do in that space. As soon as I graduated with my PhD., I laid out my scholarly trajectory. I had a ten-year plan to become full professor before age 40. That dream was realized with hard and focused work.

I had never however dreamed of being an academic administrative leader. I think in part this had to do with the fact that I had never ever seen a high-level administrative leader who looked like me. Thus, I had never aspired to be one. There are certainly more minoritized women academic leaders now, than when I graduated. My advice to minoritized women leaders coming behind me is thus this—there were diverse female leaders before us who broke down barriers to allow us to dare to dream to be in academic leadership positions today. They endured racist and misogynistic trauma to open these academic leadership position doors for us. Therefore, if you have the drive and determination to make a positive difference in your academic institution, dare to dream, to imagine yourself in leadership positions that you aspire to. Seek out mentoring and support from other leaders; engage in professional development in order to hone your leadership skills and abilities; cultivate a clear vision; be strategic, have a reason and rationale for everything you do;  hone your  communication and listening skills which you will need when you are called upon to make difficult decisions; try to build consensus, but if you are unable, listen to the concerns of your detractors and clearly communicate the reasons for your decisions. Academic leadership is about helping others perform their best. Thus, be bold, be clear; seek collaboration, welcome discussion. Being a leader can be challenging, but you have to put yourself out there and take on new opportunities.  If you aspire to be a leader, believe in who you are and what you bring to the table.

This month, we interviewed the first female Ph.D. graduate in Economics from the College of Social Science; what are your thoughts on the journey from the first female doctorate to where we are present day?

Fifty-one years ago, the first woman in the College of Social Science earned a PhD in Economics. Interestingly enough, Economics is still one of those fields that women and especially minoritized scholars, are underrepresented in, making Dr. Barbara Lowrey’s achievement even more trailblazing. In my job as Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, it is with great pleasure that I inform search committees that women faculty (who all have PhDs) are not a minoritized group in our college.  We are almost at gender parity in SSC and that is indeed a remarkable achievement. However, there are departments and schools in our college that have a long way to go when it comes to gender parity in their units, and pretty much all departments and schools have a ways to go when it comes to the racial representation of our faculty, African American especially.  So, we must remember this trailblazer, Dr. Lowrey’s example and commit to doing our part as faculty in continuing to train majority and minoritized female PhD trailblazers of the future.

The recent racial atrocities perpetrated against Asian Pacific Islander Desi Americans (APIDA) and Asians continue a long history of hate, discrimination, and intolerance. In President Stanley’s recent message on this issue, he spoke about everyone doing their part “to combat racism and discrimination in all its forms and support one another...” In your role as Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the College of Social Science, what would your message to students be as to how they can do their part and follow the President’s urging to “build a campus community we are proud of”?

The recent escalation of anti-Asian discrimination and violence in our country points to how racism and sexism are inextricably linked. As members of the College of Social Science, we must strongly condemn these acts. As a College we stand with the victims, families, and communities of Atlanta affected by the recent mass shooting that targeted Asian-run massage parlors. It is however important to note that this incident should not be viewed in isolation, but as part of a legacy of anti-Asian violence exacerbated by xenophobic fearmongering engendered by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

As students, faculty, and staff in the College of Social Science, we stand for transformative justice and change. We must work to build pathways for action and go beyond words. Toward these ends, I invite our students to take a pledge of action that will allow us to create a safe environment for our Asian American and APIDA community at Michigan State University.

  1. Commit to creating a welcoming and safe environment for our Asian American and APIDA student family.

  2. Learn all you can about the Asian American and APIDA community.

    1. Peruse the Asian Pacific American Studies

    2. Watch the PBS documentary series, Asian Americans .

    3. Look out for the May edition of our SSC, “From the Desk of The Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)” newsletter, where we celebrate Asian American Heritage Month, and highlight the DEI work of an SSC Asian American student. Share and tag our Asian American Diversity student leader (Diversity Torch) on social media. 

    4. Read up on the Asian American and APIDA community

      1. Esquire, “ 10 Essential Books About the Asian American Experience.” Share and tag your favorite reads on social media and recommend to your friends. 
      2. The Atlantic, Cathy Park Hong, “Why This Wave of Anti-Asian Racism Feels Different”.
    5. MSU has several courses dedicated to the Asian American/APIDA experience. Take a course or two. Consider signing up for our Asian Pacific American Studies Minor.

  3. Display your support in a discernible way.

    1. Be an active bystander.

      1. Speak out against statements, attitudes, or behavior that perpetuate a culture of discrimination against Asian American/APIDA students.
      2. If you feel threatened by discriminatory behavior, please remember that MSU has many resources that respond to harmful acts including:
        1. Office of Institutional Equity (OIE)
        2. MSU Misconduct Hotline
        3. University Ombudsperson
      3. You can also find healing and support here:
        1. Counseling and Psychiatric Services (CAPS).
    2. Join our Asian Pacific American Student Organization for one of their events. Post photos and tag the event on social media. Encourage your friends to attend. 

    3. Commit to safely patronizing Asian American/APIDA owned businesses—restaurants, stores, massage therapy and health clinics. Share and tag the businesses on social media and recommend to your friends.