Leaks and holes: beyond the pipeline versus process debate on diversity

A pipeline does exist in higher ed, but process and structural violence in education writ large keep puncturing the pipe, says Pardis Mahdavi

Pardis Mahdavi's avatar
10 Sep 2021
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Checking a leaky pipeline

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Arizona State University

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“Do we really have to attend your diversity training?” challenged one member of faculty after I announced that we would be making justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (Jedi) education mandatory for all members of search committees.

I stiffened.

“I mean, we can do all the training we want. The problem isn’t us; the problem is that there isn’t a pipeline for women and scholars of colour in our discipline,” he continued.

“Don’t you know that it’s more about process than pipeline,” interjected one of the faculty of colour who unfairly had to carry the burden of speaking out too frequently.

I nodded my head, recalling the debate that had been making waves throughout many industries – including higher education – about the challenges of hiring diverse candidates across a range of professions.

The first faculty member who spoke had articulated what I have come to think of as the “pipeline argument”. This position is defined by the reasoning that it is impossible to hire more diverse candidates in “certain areas” (and everyone thinks they are working in these areas) because there aren’t enough strong individuals in the pipeline. Those who espouse this take the position that there isn’t anything to be done on the part of hiring committees and authorities because they are not responsible for filling the pipeline. Thus, they are absolved from having to put any work into this process.

The opposing view is those who articulate the “process argument”. This viewpoint notes that there is a robust pipeline in place, but that hiring processes are to blame for a lack of diversity. Examples such as bias written into job ads, standards that exclude certain populations and a tendency for search committees to hire people who look like themselves are all cited.

So who’s right? Is it pipeline or process?

Neither. It’s a little bit of both and much more. A pipeline does exist – at least in higher education  but process and structural violence in education writ large keep puncturing the pipe. This results in a leaky pipeline that even the best training and processes can’t fix.

I first discovered this when thinking about my own experience, coupled with arguments such as the one I relay above. I identify as a woman of colour dean in academia. I am the first woman of colour to hold my current position, as well as the deanship before that. I am living proof that there is a pipeline, as are the many women of colour who make up my network who fill the pipeline ready and willing to serve in leadership positions in academia around the country. We exist!

So, I became a “process argument” person. But over the past year the processes have started changing. Job ads look different now from how they did before. Diversity statements are welcome. Search firms even ask for candidates who are women of colour. But as I nominated more and more friends for jobs that have started popping up this year, their responses, which in prior years had signalled a willingness, were often the same: “Please don’t nominate me, I’m just too tired to do it.”

And then I understood: the pipeline is leaking. But why?

Here is what the process people have right: the process of a job search can be laced with bias. So much so that the experience can discourage and even exclude certain candidates. I was in a search some years ago where I was told by a search firm that I wasn’t “of colour” enough, and yet I was somehow “too brown”.

The process of interviewing for leadership positions in academia almost made me resolve to never apply for another leadership position again almost. But then I realised that the process was one of many holes that leak from the robust pipeline of women and people of colour who are awaiting leadership jobs in the academy.

The other holes come from asking the “pipeline” arguers one simple question: why?

Why do you think the pipeline is not as full as it should be? Why, for example, aren’t there more women and people of colour with a PhD in physics, or paleoarchaeology, or many others?

Structural and epistemic violence in the academy make holes. This begins with students – as early as their first year – and continues up through leadership at the highest levels.

Curricula that exclude lived experience or are rooted in testing mechanisms that have been proved to exclude certain groups are just one example.

That kind of structural violence is replicated in graduate programmes that seek to exclude, reasoning – wrongly that access is the enemy of excellence and elitism is the currency of success.

For those of us lucky enough to have survived graduate school and landed a tenure-track job, a lack of enlightened mentoring and heavy burdens of invisible labour make it difficult to climb the ladder. And then, once we do, we continue to confront racism and sexism in processes as outlined above but also in our daily interactions.

The process is the culprit behind one hole in the pipe, but the others go way back. To address this leaky pipeline, we need to change our entire mindset within higher education. Go beyond the false dichotomy of access and excellence. Address the epistemic and structural violence that beats people up. Then we won’t have a pipeline that leaks but instead a pipeline that is strong and ready for the new processes we are implementing. Those processes need to be part of a larger structural change –  and to succeed they need to take root in a more fertile environment.

Pardis Mahdavi is professor of anthropology and dean of social sciences at Arizona State University.

She will be featured on the panel "Doing more for the diversity agenda" at THE's upcoming Student Success Forum on 22 September. Learn more and register. 


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