A Web of Support for Black Women in Higher Education

Guest Blog tile: A Web of Support for Black Women in HIgher Education

The right relationships make all the difference

Read A Web of Support: A Critical Narrative Analysis of Black Women’s Relationships in STEM Disciplines”  (The Review of Higher Education 47.1, Fall 2023) free through 31 May 2024

Who gets to succeed in higher education? This is a question that we, as higher education researchers, should ask often of ourselves and others. Especially within science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines, higher education success requires a combination of opportunity, access, resources, and support. Unfortunately, we continue to see racialized and gendered structural barriers to STEM success (e.g., hostile environments, lack of mentoring/sponsorship) that disproportionately affect women, and Black women in particular. 

Why are racial and gender disparities so persistent? Black women face several unique challenges in academia, related to their intersecting racialized and gendered identities, including discrimination and isolation. Even Black women who are successful (e.g., graduating, high achieving) experience exclusion and targeted career derailment. Within STEM disciplines, this situation is more pronounced, as Black women remain severely underrepresented in STEM majors and subsequently in numerous STEM professions. 

Many of the Black women who remain in STEM disciplines often earn their undergraduate degrees from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), but some go on to earn their graduate degrees from predominantly or historically White institutions (PWIs/HWIs). With this shift in institutions, there may come the challenge of navigating a “chillier,” less supportive graduate environment, than the “warmer” supportive environment experienced at an HBCU. While there is research on the value of relationships, the long-term processes of creating and maintaining the interactions between such valuable relationships across and within institutions are less apparent. Research suggests that Black women’s relationships may offer insight into institutional strategies for support.

Positive social connections and relationships matter greatly in connecting STEM scholars to the best training and mentorship and can contribute towards personal and professional success and well-being. However, in the academy, having access to supportive relationships—especially for Black women within STEM disciplines—is not always a given, and can be hard to come by for Black women at PWIs.

 

"To support Black women’s’ STEM pathways, institutions have a responsibility to facilitate conditions where positive and discipline-based support from faculty, administrators, peers, and family are more likely to occur and interact with one another."

 

We were motivated by a desire to better understand Black women’s relational experiences that support their academic journey to and through multiple STEM environments (both in undergraduate and graduate education spaces). In our recent paper in The Review of Higher Education, “A Web of Support: A Critical Narrative Analysis of Black Women’s Relationships in STEM Disciplines,” we highlighted how dynamic relationships and support networks contribute to Black women’s persistence in STEM disciplines. Data for this paper came from a larger critical oral history project of 105 Black women alumnae. We focused on the in-depth experiences of three Black women who attended Spelman College (a historically Black college) around the same time, majored in a STEM field, and then attended graduate school at a PWI.

Instead of relying on a single source of support, we found that these Black women in STEM strategically created a dynamic web of support that included family, faculty, administrators, and peers. Most importantly, when this positive web of support facilitated asking for help and connected directly to and reinforced their academic disciplines, these Black women experienced asset-based opportunities and mentorship/sponsorship that kept them within their STEM discipline instead of being pushed out. For example, engagement included family engagement with the STEM discipline through special summer programs, or faculty and administrator mentorship that connected to their academic disciplines. 

Returning to the original question: Who gets to succeed in higher education? We maintain that Black women’s relationships matter greatly towards success, but that it is not solely the responsibility and burden of the students to create and maintain such dynamic networks. To support Black women’s’ STEM pathways, institutions have a responsibility to facilitate conditions where positive and discipline-based support from faculty, administrators, peers, and family are more likely to occur and interact with one another.

While this study focused on experiences at one historically Black college, and supports other research on the impact of long-lasting connections created at HBCUs, the implications of this can be applied to any higher education institution. Cross-institutional and discipline-based transition and support programs between HBCUs and PWIs as well as team-based mentoring approaches are two ways that institutions can support the networks necessary for Black women to thrive in STEM and beyond. More information about the larger study can be found here.

Written by: Paris Wicker, Dorian L. McCoy, Rachelle Winkle-Wagner, and Imani Barnes
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