Mothers of Color on the Pandemic Tenure Track

Palomar College
Riverside City College
Palomar College

Note: The following article is not an official statement of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges. The article is intended to engender discussion and consideration by local colleges but should not be seen as the endorsement of any position or practice by the ASCCC.

The experience of motherhood should be the congruence of subjectivity and intersectionality in their most transformative sense: a self-identity free of structural inequities and oppression. Motherhood in academia and on the tenure track is a polar opposite of this description, as it is fraught with hegemony, hierarchy, patriarchy, racialization, eurocentrism, privilege, structural inequities, and an overall lack of empathy. Mothers of color at community colleges endure a political negotiation process (Majdi Clark, 2014) in reconciling these two realities of motherhood in the wake of the global pandemic. We use the terms “motherhood” and “sisterhood” in community in this writing, embracing the solidarity of people who identify as women and who are charged with delivering care on a regular basis.

Critical race theory scholar and law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw devised the theoretical framework of intersectionality that examines how race, class, and gender intersect. Intersectionality “is when social justice scholars examine the marginalization of race, but also the ongoing oppression of women” (Sadat, 2019, p. 35). Professor mothers of color embody a form of intersectionality that is inflected by the pressure to keep iterations of motherhood private and professorship public. Rejecting their private selves, as in hiding children from view on zoom, almost feels like a rejection of their public professorial selves as well, an experience unique to professor mothers of color seeking to do more than survive as they follow Bettina Love’s framework of survival (2019).

To witness a white cis-male colleague degradingly say “ugh, she’s having another baby?” is not an uncommon experience in this line of work. This problematic statement about a professor mother generates a sense of injury that encapsulates the negotiation that mothers of color in academia experience regularly. They not only negotiate their academic and professional selves as transgressive educators, but they also have to sift through the aftermath of blind corner-lurking macro and microaggressions, all while being among only a handful of professor mothers of color in these spaces. They simultaneously navigate the professional structures of teaching and college service that beckon them on the tenure track as they give care to their own children in navigating an unsafe, racist society.

This process has been exacerbated recently as the world continues to endure a global pandemic. Parents have experienced greater responsibilities of homeschooling their children while also adapting their teaching and meetings remotely. Despite the challenges of COVID-19, parents have been able to attend more meetings than before, since everything has been made accessible in a virtual platform. Equity for mothers who are educators needs to be considered as colleges transmute their praxis due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.

Mothers who are faculty and take maternity leave experience many complexities, especially if they are not tenured. While others assume being on maternity leave is time off from work, most faculty mothers continue to work to meet tenure hours and remain financially stable. While California Education Code §44695 allows faculty to use their sick leave for up to twelve weeks for parental leave, Education Code §87605 states, “a faculty member shall be deemed to have completed his or her first contract year if he or she provides service for 75 percent of the first academic year.” Effectively, non-tenured professor mothers who wish to keep on course with the tenure process are afforded only eight weeks of parental leave, which is not enough time for mothers to adjust postpartum physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Many professor mothers of color also share the role of being first-generation students and educators. Just as they navigated their college campuses for the first time as students, they see themselves repeating these same experiences as educators. The notion of community building becomes incredibly important for first-generation faculty of color. Finding a Jegna, or brave protector, who supports and advocates for faculty of color is pivotal when one is navigating higher education. Hence, having a supportive tenure committee is imperative to foster growth as educators.

Additionally, women of color represent a minority of full-time tenured faculty. Of all full-time faculty in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, three percent are Asian/Pacific Islander females, two percent are black females, and less than one percent are Hispanic, American Indian/Alaska Native females (U.S. Department of Education, 2020). Women of color are more concentrated in part-time faculty roles, which results in full-time, tenured positions being inherently competitive. Women of color faculty face a tremendous burden securing and succeeding in these roles, as they are often confined to race-specific positions and expectations (Walkington, 2017) such as advising affinity groups or an expectation to lead antiracism work. Furthermore, they are often assigned high numbers of advisees, diversity-related committee work on top of other required service obligations, and teaching loads higher than those of their white peers (Pittman, 2012). Additionally, on teaching evaluations, students rated African-American faculty unfavorably compared to white faculty, seeing them as less intelligent (Pittman, 2012). These factors contribute to unsuccessful tenure and promotion and send the message that women of color faculty are not welcome in academic institutions.

Sisterhood: Embracing Solidarity to Move Through Spaces

Brittany Cooper’s Eloquent Rage (2018) is a black feminist manifesto that explains these challenges yet offers poignant hope for solidarity and change rooted in bell hooks’ notion of love. Cooper—herself an accomplished, tenured professor of color—claims that Beyonce’s famous response to the question “are you a feminist?” should be every feminist’s creed: “I love being a woman and being a friend to all women.” Cooper and Beyonce are themselves at the precipice of an intellectually rigorous black feminist framework notably developed by scholars such as Christina Sharpe (2016) and Jennifer Nash (2018), where the goal of such theory is to present black and brown feminisms as “lights that help us imagine new ways of being and relating” and projects of “freedom dreams” (Reese and Cooper, 2021).

Adding to the challenges faced by tenure-track mothers of color at the community college level is the obstacle of isolation and solitary experiences, often being the only mother of color in a department. This experience has caused the development of survivalist strategies such as tokenism and intense vilification of others who may enter the institutional space. Following Fanon’s (1967) hierarchies of the “colonized mind,” these behaviors are also constant barriers to the experience of feminist love and solidarity at the community college level. Cooper’s (2018) inclusive love and ethics-based feminism directly rejects these assimilationist, model minority-style tropes of tokenism that add another dimension of struggle to the lives of academic mothers of color. These obstacles, unlike the legacies of hegemony and white supremacy embedded in academic institutions and academia itself, present themselves vulnerably with a profound capacity for rejection and change in pursuit of freedom dreams.

Womanism theory did include the understanding and lived experiences of women of color, while white women have been greatly represented in feminist theory and in academia. Although the womanism perspective was first established to share lived experiences of black women in the United States, over time this social theory provided belonging for all women of color as seen in the epistemic pattern work of Cooper (2018) and other scholars.

From this location of injury and vulnerability, one can act with agency and feminist solidarity, following Judith Butler’s (2006) argument of dialectic injury toward liberation. Thus, restoring vulnerability and enlisting one another in a relationship of trust, along with the critical component of institutional support, is how mothers of color in the professoriate will thrive and ascend to create change in oppressive environments.

Institutional Actions and Support

The combination of sisterhood and institutional support is critical to the success and retention of professor mothers of color. Colleges can take various steps to begin the conversations coming out of the pandemic regarding how to work most efficiently and equitably as a holistic learning community. Such actions are a starting point to address the needs of many faculty mothers of color who are continuously minoritized and marginalized at community college campuses:

  • Provide the option to attend meetings, councils, committees, and subcommittees virtually regardless of remote work.
  • Provide the option for working mothers to teach remotely in the semester that their parental leave is completed.
  • Provide affordable on-campus childcare, with consideration given to faculty and staff.
  • Adopt a no apologies culture where parents are not pressured to apologize for the care they need to give nor are they judged on archaic and meritocratic good or hard work measures.
  • Respect privacy and time for women with intersectional identities and commitments.
  • Promote affinity organizations, such as Palomar College’s Empowered Women and San Diego Chapter, American Association for Women in Community Colleges, that provide community, support, resources, and activism on behalf of women and working mothers.
  • Give consideration to tenure evaluation on a semester basis, especially for faculty who begin their employment in the spring semester.


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