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There are two university staff members that I see everyday who look like me. They are both women, and they are both very soft-spoken. We don’t ever exchange more than a “Hello” with one another, but between us there seems to be an unspoken agreement that we acknowledge and respect one another’s work. It’s not often that I see university staff faces with a similar bone structure to mine, the same skin colour as mine, or whispered hints of accents and languages that remind me of my family and my ancestors. But, I see these traits in these two women, and for that, they are the closest things to visual role models I have on campus.
Both of these people are custodial staff, and for the most part, they are the only staff members on campus that I have seen with faces like mine.
It is alarming to me that the only adult faces I see like mine on campus are the ones that are forced to work behind the scenes, not the ones actively being portrayed as representatives of our university. During my time as an undergraduate at McMaster, I only ever had one minority professor, and I was only ever taught by her for one of my four years. When it comes to minority women on campus, the message I get is quite clear: your role is best served in service, unless you’re willing to try and beat the odds.
I’m happy to have the role models that I do on campus, our service staff work hard for our campus and community. But I hate that I very rarely see these same role models at the heads of classrooms and hosting office hours — the same roles that I would like to see for myself and my sisters. Where’s my big family of Asian, Latin, Black, Brown, Middle Eastern and Indigenous female professors waiting to welcome me into their academic arms? Where’s my professors who look like me and who are happy to look like me and want me to learn from their visual example?
According to a 2010 study by the Canadian Association of University Teachers, only 17 percent of university faculty were minorities, without a report of how many of those were women. This may seem representative given that Canada has, according to the last census, a population consisting of 20 percent minority citizens, but how is this percentage of staff distributed through the university? Does one faculty have more exposure to minority role models than another? Another disappointing statistic comes in the form of unemployment research. The largest group of unemployed professors in Canada is that of female visible minorities, with eight percent unemployment — a sizeable feat compared to the roughly four percent unemployment running across their male and white counterparts.
It isn’t a matter of there simply not being enough racialized women with PhDs and credentials; we know they’re out there, they are just not being hired as much as other groups.
Even when I was hired for my job and then was hiring positions for this paper, I heard one of our former staff members say blatantly sexist and racist micro-aggressions about hiring multiple women of colour (FYI, they asked “are we hiring too many?”).
I hold a position of power among my student body, and I acknowledge that. I am a minority woman who is filling a job that, aside from a single digit number of exceptions in our 85-year history, has consistently been held by white people (and only 12 of those white people being women). With this being said, it is part of my intrinsic nature of holding this position to feel a need to represent my sisters of all colours and try to be the professional role model many of them have yet to encounter on campus.
In general, I see a variety of colours and cultures on campus, but very rarely do I see them outside of our student body and our service staff. At this point, I don’t even care if I see professors and staff who are the same genre of minority as me, I just want to see more than one person representing minority women from the side of faculty.
So McMaster, I get that you’re trying, and I know that we work hard to promote a diverse campus, but I’d like to propose a New Year’s resolution for you: let’s get a female university staff in a range of colours — I want to see women of colour on campus clearing off chalk boards for more than one reason.