The career experiences of African American women faculty: implications for counselor education programs

Carla Bradley

Despite three decades of affirmative action efforts, counseling programs continue to struggle with the challenge of recruiting and retaining African American women faculty. This article focuses on the occupational experiences and unique challenges that confront African American women professors. Strategies for supporting, mentoring and retaining African American women counseling faculty will also be presented.


In this new millennium, despite three decades of anti-discrimination legislation and affirmative action, the voice of the African American woman counselor educator has remained relatively tenebrous. Although the counseling literature has recently begun to address the career experiences of White American women faculty (Fouad & Carter, 1992; Roland & Fontanesi-Seime, 1996; Skinner & Walker, 2001) and faculty of color (Atkinson, 1983; Atkinson, Morten, & Sur, 1989; Bradley & Holcomb-McCoy, 2004; Brinson, & Kottler, 1993, Lee & Arrendondo (2001), a dearth of information is available on the distinct career development paths and encounters of African American women faculty.

Several writers (Gregory, 1995; Smith, 1999; Turner, 2002) have attributed the absence of the African American female academician perspective in counseling disquisitions to her dual identity as a member of a racially oppressed group and as a woman. For example, although all women have benefited from affirmative action, White American women have been the major beneficiaries in the areas of employment, particularly in higher education institutions (Bell & Nkomo, 2001; Ladson-Billings, 2000). Consequently, attention to the “woman question” among counselor educators has primarily focused on salary, child care duties, and promotion and tenure differences between White female and male faculty, frequently leaving the viewpoints of African American female faculty out of the discourse (Fouad & Carter, 1992; Roland & Fontanesi-Seime 1996; Skinner & Walker, 2001). Similarly, when studies have focused on ethnic minority counseling faculty (Dinsmore & England, 1996; Young, Chamley & Withers, 1990) investigators have treated them as one monolithic group, highlighting the special issues ethnic minorities face in general, often ignoring gender and racial differences.

This is a critical time for African American faculty in general, and African American female faculty in particular. Recent literature has revealed that fewer tenured positions have been filled after retirement, and many have been eliminated (Aguirre, 2000; Gregory, 1997; Turner, 2002). Although women and ethnic minority faculty are overrepresented at the assistant professor level, Alfred (2001) and Singh, Robinson & Green (1995) found African American women faculty to be far more disadvantaged at universities than White women and other racial minority groups. Specifically, African American female faculty members are promoted and tenured at a lower rate than either African American men and White American women. Further, Alfred (2001) and Turner (2002) revealed that African American women faculty receive fewer opportunities for collaborative research than their female counterparts. Moreover, several studies (Benjamin, 1997; Smith, 1999) affirmed that the academic environment is often “chilly,” hostile and indifferent toward African American women faculty and administrators.

The American Counseling Association is at the emergent stage in addressing this salient issue. Panel discussions and committees have been assembled to dialogue about the presence of ethnic minority counselor educators. However, the presence and career needs of African American female counselor educators continue to remain unnoticed. This suppression of the African American female faculty “voice” may leave senior faculty and promotion and tenure committees in counseling departments to draw their own conclusions regarding the career experiences and challenges of their African American women faculty. Consequently, this void may lead inquirers to rely on negative and stereotypical images of African American women derived from print and television media. Hence, the purpose of this article is to illuminate the occupational experiences of African American women faculty. Specifically, this article will focus on the characterization of African American female professionals and the career development of African American women in the professorate. With knowledge of these critical issues, counseling departments will be in a better position to address the career needs of African American female faculty. Strategies for supporting, mentoring and retaining African American female counselor educators will also be presented.

Characterization of African American Professional Women

A discussion of the characterization of the African American professional woman is complex because society has defined her in constraining and degrading ways. Two primary stereotypical images that society has of African American women are the “Mammy” and “Sapphire.” The “Mammy” typecast is rooted in the history of slavery when an actual mammy was the primary caretaker of the master’s household (Mitchell & Herring, 1998). She was often stout, dark-skinned, and obsequiously devoted to the master and his family. Historically, the media has portrayed her as happy and always ready to soothe everyone’s hurt and service their needs (Yarbrough & Bennett, 2000). Hooks (2000) and Smith (1999) have contended the “Mammy” image is perhaps the most pervading and desirable image of African American women among White Americans.

Multiple writers have acknowledged that dominant culture today continues to expect mammy behavior from African American women whether are not they fit the physical description (Giddings, 1984; Jackson & Greene, 2000, Smith, 1999). Mitchell and Herring (1998) cited a poignant example of an African American woman, whose co-workers expected this type of stereotypical behavior and were disappointed when she did not comply:

I received a less- than-positive

review from my supervisor, which I

didn’t understand. ! knew ! had done

my job well. When I went in to question

the review, my supervisor, a

White woman, told me that several

of my coworkers complained that I

was intimidating and hard to get

along with. I knew what she meant–I

didn’t make them feel good, I

didn’t make them laugh, put them

at ease, socialize with them at lunch.

I was there to do a job, but I was

being rated on how comfortable I

made Whites I worked with feel. (p.


The above illustration demonstrates one of the subtle realities of workforce racism and sexism that African American women face as they attempt to gain acceptance and respect from their fellow colleagues. It also signifies the penalty of being censored and often ostracized when African American women do not acquiesce to the unwritten rule of “serving and nurturing” co-workers.

Opposite of the nurturing “Mammy” is the “Sapphire” stereotype. “Sapphire” was a character from the 1950’s television show, Amos and Andy. She was the “nagging,” “complaining,” and “sassy” wife of her television husband Kingfish. Because of her loud and obnoxious behavior, she was often ignored by her husband and viewed as unintelligent and incompetent by the people around her.

Several African American women scholars (Benjamin, 1997; Smith, 1999; Turner, 2002) have espoused that African American women who are confident, intelligent, and assertive in their professional responsibilities can be perceived as being a “Sapphire” The following narrative from an African American women professor illustrates this tendency:

I am an educated African American

female who is a law professor. As

such, I am a Sapphire. I am a Sapphire

not because I choose to be or

because I actually am. I am a Sapphire

because of an inflexible

characterization about Black women

that concludes that I am angry,

threatening, and unintelligent. As a

Sapphire, I am not regarded as

entirely unintelligent, but intelligent

enough to use my wit in angry and

threatening ways. My status and

effectiveness as a law professor and

my potential career opportunities are

diminished by my identity as a Black

woman, i.e., as a Sapphire. (Smith,

1999, p.32)

Given the pervasiveness of the “Mammy” and “Sapphire” perceptions, colleges and universities can no longer ignore the probable impact that these images can have on the career development of African American women professionals in general, and African American female faculty in particular.

African American Women in the Professorate

African American women have been participants in higher education for more than a century; however, they continue to be seriously underrepresented among faculty ranks. African American female faculty in the United States only account for 2.5% (14,562) of the 590,937 full-time instructional faculty in degree-granting institutions (Patitu & Hinton, 2003). Only 0.2% of African American women are full professors, 0.4% are associate professors, are 0.7% are assistant professors and 0.5% are instructors (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2002). Although the number of African American women assistant professors have increased in recent years, they are promoted at a slower rate and paid less than their White American male and female counterparts (Gregory, 1995; Turner, 2003). Thus, it appears that the “open doors” promised to African American women faculty by means of affirmative action may actually be revolving or closed doors (Smith, 1999).

Counselor education programs are no different from other fields in higher education when discussing the representation of African American faculty. However, quantitative and qualitative information about the presence of African American female counselor educators is often cloaked in studies on ethnic minority counseling faculty. Over the last twenty years, numerous counseling scholars (Atkinson, 1983; Brinson & Kottler, 1993; D’Andrea, Daniels & Heck, 1991; Dinsmore & England, 1996; Lee & Arrendondo, 2001; Young, Chamley & Withers, 1990) have converged their attention on the recruit ment and retention of faculty of color. Although the findings of these investigations acknowledged that African American faculty were underrepresented in CACREP-accredited programs, none of the studies or critiques addressed the presence of African American female counselor educators represented in counseling programs.

Perhaps the most jutting theme in the literature on African American women faculty is their unappreciated presence in the classroom. It has been generally recognized that all women faculty often receive unequal treatment from students. However, recent studies and writings have documented that some White American college students perceive African American women professors to be incompetent and feel at liberty to challenge their authority. Pope and Joseph (1997) in their study of student harassment of female faculty cited the following observation by an African American female professor that illustrated this predisposition:

After reading his grade, the student

lunged out of his seat, threw the chair

on its side, and shouted very loudly,

“I don’t want that grade. You can’t

teach. I’m going to see that you don’t

get tenure.” He then stormed out of

the room. The matter was reported

to the dean, who simply shook his

head, implying that boys will be

boys. This was a horrible experience

for me. (p. 252)

The results from Pope and Joseph’s investigation also revealed that African American women faculty often receive derisive student evaluations and verbal assaults from their students. Some of the verbal comments have included, “Bitch, go back to Africa” “Black bitch” and “You are here only because of Affirmative Action.” Hooks (2000) and Robinson (1997) cogently described this phenomenon as a construct of White supremacy in that some White American students only see race and inferiority when they receive instruction from African American female academics. As well, recent studies (Gregory, 1997; Turner & Myers, 2000) have affirmed that these set of unspoken and covertly extremist standards often impede on the promotion and tenure of African American female professors.

Research is another area that African American female faculty must be deemed competent to gain tenure and promotion. Nonetheless, Benjamin (1997) contended that the research activities and publications of African American female academics are often scrutinized more severely by faculty peer review committees and they tend not to be included in collaborative research with the colleagues. Recent investigations of faculty productivity have evinced that numerous African American female scholars are engaged in developing theories and methods that transcend the limits of traditional European-based worldviews (Alfred, 2001; Benjamin, 1997; Gregory, 1995). Consequently, by publishing and conducting research outside of the dominant paradigm, the work of African American women professors is often discredited or viewed mediocre by their White American colleagues.

African American women also face unique challenges in fulfilling their service responsibilities at predominately White colleges and universities. Because of their scarcity and visibility, African American female academics are often used as ceremonial showcases in university functions and are often pressured to serve on numerous task forces and search and admission committees (Kaweme, 1997; Turner, 2002). They are also expected to be role models for African American undergraduate and graduate students. Turner (2002) asserted that these overwhelming service obligations are often performed at the expense of time designated for research and writing.

Strategies For Retaining And Supporting African American Women Counseling Faculty

This analysis of the writings and research on African American women professors provided a synopsis of the rich assortment of information available to the counseling profession. Perhaps the most salient theme evident from this body of work is that African American female faculty experience numerous barriers such as exclusion from collegial research projects and disproportionate service demands, as well as covert, and at times, overt racial harassment from students. These obstacles may be as real in counselor education as they are in other parts of academia. For instance, Durodoye (1999) recounted numerous racial incidents she experienced as a counselor educator. Her experiences ranged from being called “an affirmative action hire” to being unheard at faculty meetings. Bradley and Holcomb-McCoy (2002) in their study of ethnic minority counselor educators found that African American faculty were least likely to be asked by their colleagues to collaborate on publications or research projects. Moreover, a recent study (Bradley & Holcomb-McCoy, 2004) of African American counseling faculty found that both African American men and women counselor educators felt they had excessive service/committee demands from their department and college relating to diversity. Several participants in this investigation acknowledged that research on race issues was seen by their White American colleagues as a “soft discipline” and promotion and tenure committees had a lack of understanding and appreciation for research within the African American community. The study also revealed that African American women were more likely to perceive the promotion and tenure process as a major source of stress.

It is evident in many counselor education programs, due to the scant representation of African American faculty, that there is still much work to be done to encourage the permanence of African American women professors. Failure to recognize and alter the academic frustration that many African American female faculty experience may perpetuate the dismal statistics regarding faculty of color in counselor education. The following strategies are offered to assist counseling programs in enhancing the perdurability of African American female counselor educators.

Support Research, Writing, and Collaborative Work

Counseling programs can assist African American women faculty with their research efforts by formulating formal consultative relationships with senior faculty who have productive research and writing portfolios. The use of research mentors would afford African American women the opportunity to discuss with someone individually, articles in progress, research proposals and future research projects (Benjamin, 1997). Weekly or bi weekly meetings would be instrumental in developing and maintaining research and writing time-lines and career plans. Additionally, these senior faculty would be functional in providing examples of levels of scholarly work required for promotion and tenure so that African American female faculty could build meritorious publication and research agendas.

It is salient to note, however, that this formal consultative relationship is not always enhanced if the senior faulty member is another person of color or a White American female. The counseling literature (Atkinson, Morten, & Sue, 1989; Dinsmore & England, 1996; Lee & Arredondo, 2001) has consistently confirmed that counselor educators of color are underrepresented among senior and tenured ranks. Consequently, they are often called upon to mentor students as well as faculty. These additional demands of their time may compromise their ability to devote adequate attention to the research and writing concerns of African American women counseling faculty. In regard to White American female faculty, despite shared gender discrimination in obtaining promotion and tenure in most colleges and universities, some White American female counselor educators may continue to struggle with issues concerning race or race-related research. These differences can seriously impede the ability of White American female faculty to effectively mentor African American female counselor educators.

Acknowledge Teaching Challenges of African American Female Faculty

Many graduate students are encountering African American female professors for the first time. Bias among these students can result in negative teaching evaluations. Counseling programs can demonstrate their intolerance of inappropriate student behavior by constituting a clear written policy on racial and sexual harassment of faculty by students presenting specific examples of the behaviors involved. Additionally, teaching evaluations could also include an appraisal by the instructor of classroom climate issues such as racism, sexism and student harassment. Department chairs could incorporate this holistic perspective into the annual assessment of the instructor’s teaching competencies. Finally, colleges and universities can also provide teaching development seminars facilitated by teaching mentors who are knowledgeable of the technical aspects of teaching as well as classroom climate dynamics that impact faculty of color and women (Turner, 2002). Such teaching mentors can assist African American female faculty in navigating their way through predicaments in which their authority and credibility are being challenged by students.

Promote and Encourage Multicultural Research Interests among All Faculty

It is equally important that counseling faculty not diminish or devalue research on multicultural counseling issues. One of the consistent themes in the social science literature is that numerous African American women scholars are engaged in research that broaden mainstream theories and practices. Without departmental validation and encouragement of diverse research interests, African American women will continue to be isolated from departmental and college networks and collegial projects and publications.

Suspend Tokenism

Because there is a paucity of African American women faculty present on college campuses, they are often in the position of being tokens within their departments and colleges. Turner and Myers (2000) defined tokenism as “the belief that one person of color in a department is sufficient” (p.27). One of the contingents of tokenism is committee overload, which is often disproportionately assigned to African American women faculty.

Counselor education programs can be vigilant in circumventing this tendency by hiring more women faculty of color. Since African American women primarily occupy junior and untenured ranks, increased representation of African American women counseling faculty should begin at the senior and tenured levels to curtail the “revolving door” syndrome. The lack of the presence faculty of color in general, and African American female faculty in particular, can have a detrimental impact on counseling students. Sometimes the absence or small numbers of African American women professors present in counseling programs can send the erroneous message that African American women are not qualified to be counselor educators or college administrators. Regarding African American women faculty already present in counseling programs, colleges and universities could assist African American female faculty in networking with other African American female counselor educators at other institutions. This form of networking is often conducted at state, regional and national counseling conferences and meetings. Thus, travel to these meetings should be encouraged and financially supported by counseling programs. A seminal study (Parsons, Sands & Duane, 1992) of college professors indicated that faculty who had reached the rank of full had benefited from contacts with local and national colleagues who shared common research interests.


African American women in general, and African American female professors in particular, have emerged from what Hudson-Weems (1989) terms as a tripartite form of oppression, of racism, classism, and sexism. Nonetheless, in spite of these barriers, some African American women faculty acquire tenure and promotion and achieve great strides in the academy (Gregory, 1995). As counselor education programs struggle to diversify their faculty, they need to be cognizant of the interlocking effects of gender and race and its career implications for African American women professors.

This article provided a starting point for understanding the career experiences of African American women counselor educators. Since there is virtually no research available on the status of African American women faculty in counselor education, future investigations could focus on obtaining qualitative and quantitative data regarding the presence of African American female faculty in counselor education programs. A qualitative approach might be more attentive to how African American women counseling professors negotiate the promotion and tenure process. Scholars could also examine gender differences by comparing and contrasting the research, teaching and service experiences of African American women counselor educators with African American male counselor educators. Finally, given that African American women professors often encounter racial harassment from students, it is worth examining the perceptions of masters and doctoral level counseling students regarding African American women in general and African American women professors in particular.


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Department of Counselor Education & Counseling Psychology

Western Michigan University

COPYRIGHT 2005 Project Innovation (Alabama)

COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group

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