Too often, Tiffany Gordon, a PhD student in philosophy at Dalhousie University, is the only black woman in the room; most of the academics in her field are white and male.
But instead of running from the profession, Ms. Gordon embraced the discomfort, expressing her ideas and exploring her interest in philosophical topics outside of the traditional European curriculum.
"I think there are useful tools in philosophy for liberation," says Ms. Gordon. "It just offers people of colour great tools, and women, as well."
Ms. Gordon's determination to study philosophy wasn't always so pronounced. It wasn't until she attended a week-long summer program run by the Caribbean Philosophical Association (CPA) mid-way through her master's degree that the tides turned.
"Being surrounded by philosophers and academics of colour who were successful professors made me think there might be room in philosophy for me," Ms. Gordon says.
Philosophy is not the only field with a lack of diverse faculty members. White, male professors outnumber visible minorities and women at Canadian universities from coast-to-coast, with one study attempting to quantify the situation.
It is generally acknowledged that the presence of diverse role models expands people's career aspirations – see, for instance, STEM mentorship programs for girls, and mentoring programs for visible minorities. Those concerned about the issue feel postsecondary institutions need to consider whether all students receive equal support when working to achieve their professional goals.
Students want jobs
Universities often stress that a postsecondary education extends beyond job training by instilling critical thinking skills and turning students into well-rounded citizens, but the fact is that 91 per cent of incoming students choose to attend university because they believe they are more likely to get a job with a degree, according to the Canadian University Survey Consortium.
Canadian postsecondary participation rates are among the highest in the world, with visible minorities making up about 40 per cent of first-year university students, according to recent data from the Consortium. Statistics Canada also projects that by 2036, more than one-third of the work force will consist of visible minorities. Yet, the inability of Canada's university faculties to reflect the population can create and reinforce professional barriers for students of colour, limiting their aspirations.
"[Minority] students don't get the mentorship to encourage them to go beyond an undergraduate level," says Enakshi Dua, associate professor at the School of Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies at York University. "Why don't they go on? Because they don't see themselves reflected."
According to Dr. Dua, the lack of representation doesn't simply prevent minority students from accessing role models. "[Students] also don't see the kind of issues they're interested in studying," says Dr. Dua. As a result, visible minorities often have fewer professional options available to them in Canada.
Most universities don't release data that shows how many visible minorities work on campuses, making it difficult to connect the dots. But a nation-wide study, The Equity Myth: Racialization and Indigeneity at Canadian Universities, written by Dr. Dua and six other professors from multiple Canadian universities, indicates that the patterns exist.
In the study, researchers analyze university faculties across the country to gain a clear picture of the university faculty population and their earnings. According to a related article written by the same team "it cannot be denied that under-representation occurs, that women are less represented than men, and that there are significant differences in the numbers and the patterns of representations of different racialized groups."
This under-representation means many students don't see themselves reflected in their faculty.
Faculties don't reflect student bodies
When Julia-Simone Rutgers talks about the lack of diversity on her campus, her message is clear: Minority students feel isolated.
Ms. Rutgers, a student who identifies as half-black and attends the University of King's College in Halifax (U King's), originally set out to work with the school's students' union last year, hoping to initiate conversations about race and diversity within the student body. But during her work with student government, she realized that the lack of diversity among faculty at U King's also affects her.
Having only one black professor she felt represented her, "I was really noticing that I didn't have any kind of adult figures to go to and talk to about this stuff because most of the adult figures in my school are white people," says Ms. Rutgers.
Ms. Rutgers, an honours student studying journalism and contemporary studies, is in the third year of her undergraduate degree. She has found the lack of diverse faculty discouraging.
"In the journalism school, there aren't a lot of people of colour that are professors and so the opportunities just seem more scarce for people who aren't middle-class, white folks." The issue is even more pronounced in her contemporary studies classes, says the 19-year-old.
University administrations recognize that the underrepresentation of certain demographics among faculty can isolate students of colour.
U King's president William Lahey acknowledges that U King's faculty currently lacks diversity – a reality he says needs to change.
"I think it's an issue we have to address. We have several faculty members, members who are people of colour, but it's a very small percentage of our overall faculty," explains Mr. Lahey. "I have students and their parents both expressing concerns to me that because the world is a multicultural world, a world of diversity, they think their young people will be better prepared to participate in that world, both professionally and in other aspects of their lives, if they're educated in diverse classrooms and in a diverse educational community."
At Canada's confederation, universities catered almost exclusively to white men whose fathers were successful businessmen or affluent farmers. Even as recently as the 1930s, institutions actively pursued policies that made it more difficult for Jewish students to enroll in university. McGill at the time, for example, admitted most students who had a 60-per-cent average in secondary school. Jewish students, on the other hand, had to earn a 75-per-cent grade point average to gain admission.
Reflecting Canadian society
But today, Canadian society looks and behaves very differently. Nevertheless, according to researchers, universities are lagging behind the more recent demographic changes.
"Unfortunately, in the last seven years very little has changed," says Charlotte Kiddell, the deputy chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS).
The CFS has advocated for increased hiring of diverse faculty in the past. In a 2010 report investigating on-campus racism, the organization criticizes postsecondary curricula for focusing on Europe and European scholars. While this is an area of debate in academia, the CFS makes the point that: "It often means that our racialized students are without mentors on campus, it means that often they aren't studying materials that represent their own experiences, and it also means that non-racialized students on campuses are lacking comprehensive education on racism, on colonization and on issues that are pervasive on our campuses and our communities," says Ms. Kiddell.
One of the recommendations listed in the report pushes for diversified courses that introduce students to multiple perspectives, histories and scholars.
For faculties to diversify, however, institutions must implement changes at the highest levels of university governance, those examining the issue say.
The Academic Women's Association at the University of Alberta conducted a study that looked into the demographic composition of leadership teams in universities across Canada. In 2016, 96 per cent of leadership positions at Canada's 15 research-intensive universities (U15) were held by white men and women. The remaining 6 per cent was comprised of visible minority men. No U15 institution had a woman of colour or Indigenous person on a presidential leadership team.
Through her work, University of Alberta political science professor Malinda Smith, the primary researcher of the study, has found that people tend to hire people like themselves. She suggests the way around that is to structure hiring practices in ways to offset that tendency.
David Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), says he is aware of the lack of diversity among university faculties.
"It is a problem in terms of the student experience," says Dr. Robinson. "Without those role models and mentors available, the university can seem like a very foreign place to many people."
In order to mitigate this issue, Dr. Robinson adds that, "as an organization that represents faculty and faculty associations across the country," CAUT strives to bring awareness to the low levels of diversity, and often negotiates collective agreements with universities that encourage affirmative action programs, preferential hiring, mentoring and cluster hiring – all aimed at increasing diversity and representation.
And when universities hire diverse faculty members, they simultaneously create more opportunities for students.
When philosophy professor Chike Jeffers initially decided to pursue graduate studies, he had to move to the United States; Canada didn't offer him enough opportunities.
"When it came time to apply for graduate school, knowing that I wanted to do [philosophy], I didn't see where in Canada I could go," said Dr. Jeffers. "I didn't see where I could find people working on what I wanted to work on in terms of African philosophy and even philosophy of race, but especially in terms of my interest in philosophy as it relates to the black world."
Ultimately, the lack of representation in Canadian postsecondary academia led to Dr. Jeffers's decision to return home as soon as he earned his PhD.
"I was nearing my PhD and I was on the job market. I ended up getting two job offers that I was considering, one in the U.S. and one at Dalhousie," said Dr. Jeffers. "I wanted to make sure what was true for me, was not true for future students. I wanted to make it the case that there was at least one place in Canada that [students interested in philosophy of race] could go study at the graduate level."
This is exactly why Ms. Gordon decided to attend Dalhousie.
"Usually when you're applying to grad school, you have to look for a department, an individual in the department whose interests align with yours," explains Ms. Gordon. "When I was applying to PhD programs, I wanted to work with a philosopher of race in Canada.
I didn't want to go to the States and Chike has always been in the back of my mind."
Before enrolling at Dalhousie, Ms. Gordon didn't have any philosophy professors who looked like her. Instead, she gained the confidence to climb professionally by looking up to successful black women outside of her university, like bell hooks.
"[She] is one of my favourite authors and I discovered her stuff in my undergrad," recalls Ms. Gordon. "Even though she wasn't anyone that I've met or a teacher of mine, the fact that she wrote her story and the fact that she was teaching and had a PhD still influenced me and encouraged me to pursue an education." At times, students get lucky and find professors to look up to who belong to the same demographic, but not always. "Sometimes it just doesn't happen, so you have to make do with what you have," Ms. Gordon stresses.
Ms. Gordon acknowledges that skin tone and gender are not precursors to finding suitable role models, but often, finding a leader who has similar racialized and gendered experiences may make campus life easier for new students.
"I've had white female professors and male profs who encouraged me in my work, who do political philosophy, who are feminists," says Ms. Gordon. "So you can find a role model in many different ways, but as an undergrad, sometimes the easiest way to find that is to go to the person who looks like you."
And although Ms. Gordon has many accomplishments under her belt without the direct guidance of a black female professor, her ability to study desired topics at Dalhousie reaffirms Dr. Jeffers's decision to move back to Canada.
"I feel gratified that there is a young woman in the PhD program at Dalhousie now named Tiffany Gordon," says Dr. Jeffers. "It's the fact that she was able to make the choice about coming to Dalhousie and think about the kinds of things she wants to think about."
"That is the confirmation that I was right to make it a priority to come home," adds Dr. Jeffers.