Educators Battle Discrimination in the Field

Part 1: Obstacles in higher education.

Posted Apr 02, 2018

Jenny Grant Rankin, Ph.D.
Source: Jenny Grant Rankin, Ph.D.

A Chinese parable called “The Wisdom of the Mountain” tells of how a disciple named Lao-Li studied for decades under his master yet could never achieve enlightenment. One day he and his master descended the mountain, where Lao-Li was able to see a very different perspective than what he had viewed living among the clouds. Lao-Li learned he had gained insight from this new perspective. Yet he looked to the horizon, knowing now that even more perspectives were unknown to him and would remain that way until he pursued them.

The education field has much in common with Lao-Li on his journey. Though there are certainly education experts of all races, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations who contribute to our field, some groups face more discrimination that others when they seek to share their research and knowledge in the interest of helping students.

Diverse voices – stemming from diverse perspectives – need to be welcome for the field of education to benefit from all the expertise available. However, bias against women and people of color is evident in invitations to contribute in scholarly arenas, nominations for awards, invitations to conferences, forming professional collaborations, and other avenues essential to professional advancement (Holmes, O’Connell, & Dutt, 2015). LGBT+ individuals also face these obstacles when they seek to share research and knowledge that can benefit students.

The education field is not free of biases found in the professional arena as a whole, such as:

  • People of color, as well as women and LGBT+ individuals, experience workplace slights, indignities, and denigrating messages on a daily basis that cause harm personally and professionally (Sue, 2010).
  • Traits such as leadership that are praised when seen in men are criticized (e.g., characterized as “bossy”) when seen in women, and women who display professional ambition are perceived in a negative way in our society and are actually penalized for reaching high (Sandberg, 2013).
  • Women of color, in particular, experience the greatest bias yet receive the least support in the workplace (LeanIn & McKinsey, 2017).

Books and journals are full of study findings such as those above. It is important to be aware of such obstacles, and how they manifest themselves in our field, so we education experts can be conscientious in overcoming them as we seek to share our expertise.

Higher Education

Studies of bias in the education field often focus on higher education faculty, who shape much of the field’s literature, dialogue, and direction. A study of 6,500 professors at top U.S. universities revealed faculty are significantly likely to discriminate against (e.g., turn down meeting requests from) women and people of color (Milkman, Akinola, & Chugh, 2015). The researchers disaggregated findings by academic discipline, and the field with the second-highest rate of discrimination against female and non-white students (nearly tying with business departments for first place, and beating fields like engineering, mathematics, computer science, and other sciences) occurred in the education field. As much as we education experts talk about equity, we are not achieving it in our institutions. Other countries hold similar findings. In the United Kingdom, 73% of students and staff taking the Race Equality Survey rated their universities’ performance on race equality as “poor” or “very poor” (Parr, 2014).

A full 91% of education professors are white, and only 55% are female (Milkman et al., 2016), with the latter statistic being disproportional to female representation among primary and secondary school teachers. Women in academia are more likely to experience discrimination in the workplace than men and are less likely to serve in researcher and professor roles, and faculty members of color are more likely to be excluded from information sharing than white faculty members (Reeve & Partridge, 2017).

Higher education board members are almost entirely heterosexual; statistically speaking, it is harder for an LGBT+ individual to serve on a public university’s governing board than it is to get elected to a state legislature (Trammell, 2014). Those possessing leadership roles in the field – particularly in higher education – are more frequently in positions to decide what expertise gets shared with the field (such as by serving on boards, as journal editors, as conference officials, as paper reviewers, in media newsbytes, etc.). As much as we education experts talk about diversity, we are not showing enough value for diversity in our field’s leadership positions.

There Is More

This article covered ways in which the education field is underserved when traditionally marginalized groups face bias in higher education. Part 2 of this series (to be published May, 2018) will cover obstacles such groups face in primary and secondary school professions, as well as when they seek to share their knowledge through publishing. Part 3 (to be published June, 2018) of this series will cover areas of progress and solutions to increase the diversity of voices in the field of education so students can benefit from all research and knowledge available.


Holmes, M. A., O'Connell, S., & Dutt, K. (2015). Women in the geosciences: Practical, positive practices toward parity. Washington, DC: Wiley.

LeanIn, & McKinsey. (2017). Women in the workplace. Retrieved from

Milkman, K. L., Akinola, M., & Chugh, D. (2015, November). What happens before? A field experiment exploring how pay and representation differentially shape bias on the pathway into organizations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(6), 1678-712. doi: 10.1037/apl0000022.

O'Conor, L. (2015, February 11). Where are all the female headteachers? The Guardian. Retrieved from

Parr, C. (2014, April 6). Race discrimination in universities still a problem, reports survey. Times Higher Education. Retrieved from

Reeve, M. A., & Partridge, M. (2017, September 6). The use of social media to combat research-isolation. Annals of the Entomological Society of America, 110(5), 449-456. doi: 10.1093/aesa/sax051

Sandberg, S. (2013). Lean in: Women, work, and the will to lead. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

Sue, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions in everyday life: Race, gender, and sexual orientation. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Trammell, J. B. (2014, May/June). LGBT challenges in higher education today: 5 core principles for success. Trusteeship Magazine: Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities. Retrieved from