Kris De Welde and Andi Stepnick’s new co-edited book, Disrupting the Culture of Silence: Confronting Gender Inequality and Making Change in Higher Education, is an engaging, evidence-based toolkit for building gender equity in higher education. I just got my copy of the book two weeks ago, and I haven’t been able to put it down.
The first four parts of the book emphasize challenges facing U.S. women faculty (structural, cultural, interpersonal). Each part opens with an introduction that intersperses narratives from the data the editors collected for the book, and ends with a case study to give readers a sense of the difficulties and costs women academics face as a result of inequitable workplaces. It then offers action steps as starting points for other academics in similar situations (and those who support them) to use.
The chapters in Part 5, “Tools for Changing the Academy,” illustrate how broad, complementary approaches must work with smaller, progressive steps that both evaluate and correct equity issues on campus. This part concludes with real examples of recent, successful change initiatives from universities across the U.S.
With its “tool-kit” approach, Disrupting the Culture of Silence has a comprehensive list of resources compiled for faculty, administrators, and practitioner-researchers seeking to create a more inclusive academy. These resources are not only meant for women. De Welde and Stepnick write:
Though we focus on women faculty, these issues are not “women’s issues”; they are relevant to the academy, its members and constituents, and beyond. West and Curtis (2006) argue:
“The barriers for women in higher education not only raise questions of basic fairness, but place serious limitations on the success of educational institutions themselves.”
The academy reflects societal biases and hostilities. Yet, it could direct social change too. Our biographies, experiences, and training in feminist scholarship compel us to disrupt complacency among those who might claim that things are “better” or “good enough.”
The Back Story
What I also love about this book is the story behind it. Seven years in the making, Disrupting the Culture of Silence was borne from Kris De Welde and Andi Stepnick’s earlier work and a series of thematic workshops and sessions held at national conferences. After hearing about so many instances of hostile, vindictive, intimidating, and demoralizing situations among women faculty, these women decided to commit their scholarship and activism to working out concrete and meaningful strategies for helping them/us to persist, thrive, leave, or transform the very institutional environments that give rise to injustice. It makes me shudder.
The first step was a fact finding mission. They created Disrupting the Silence sessions to be held at key academic conferences that focused on the experiences and challenges of faculty women. Prior to each meeting, they issued a “call for experiences” that exemplified ‘difficult’ workplaces. They removed identifying information and edited several of narratives into digestible stories to share at the sessions. After participants read them, they gathered into small groups to brainstorm about how to manage the situations and/or take actions that would have impact at multiple levels — individual, interpersonal, institutional, and even beyond the institution.
Faculty members who served as panelists and facilitators invited the participants to share their own experiences and the strategies they used to overcome challenges. From unequal policies, to coping with a hostile department or problematic pathways to tenure, to many other topics, those in attendance discovered that many of their challenges were common across campuses. They were not alone. After the groups reported back, their responses were documented. De Welde and Stepnick wrote up the results and shared them in other outlets read by women faculty.
The idea caught on, and women faculty flocked to these sessions every time they were held.
Next, the “Disrupting the Silence” sessions morphed into other workshops focused not only on coping with effects of gender inequality (crucial in its own right) but on Building Gender Progressive and Multicultural Departments. What could gender progressive, multicultural workplaces, departments, organizations, and institutions look like? What would be involved in creating them? What kinds of strategies are people already using to make progress?
Since all of these sessions were held over the years at multiple conferences, starting with Sociologists for Women in Society and then branching out to the American Sociological Association and the National Women’s Studies Association, there was a broad cross section of women faculty across the country who shared their stories and provided input. The book that grew out of these informative, supportive, and constructive sessions and workshops necessarily combines these real-life experiences and case studies with contemporary research, concrete strategies, resources, and tools.
Disrupting the Culture of Silence is an essential read. More than that, it is a resource that faculty members and administrators will want to re-read, and reference, and use “to make change on their own campuses and in their professional and personal lives.” Be sure to get a copy or two for your libraries and teaching centers.
- Gender Differences in the Experience of Workplace Climate: Findings from Disrupting the Culture of Silence by Amy Blackstone, Feminist Reflections, Mar. 26, 2015.
Disrupting the Culture of Silence: Confronting Gender Inequality and Making Change in Higher Education is available from Stylus Publishing. Discount Code: DTCS15 saves you 20 percent.