Preliminary results indicate of a University of Wisconsin partner study indicate the high-stress environment of higher education may play a role in the negative mental and physical health outcomes seen among Black women in academics.

The UW School of Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis received a grant to expand a study on how racial stress impacts Black women who work in higher education, which started in 2020 in conjunction with the University of Texas-Austin. The study is a mixed-methods format, with the team at UT-Austin doing the quantitative research and the UW team doing the qualitative side via interviews.

In the U.S., Black women’s risk of adverse health outcomes is disproportionately higher than that of white women because of structural inequities within the health system and beyond. The researchers aim to see what these patterns mean for Black women in higher education.

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LaShawn Washington, a UW researcher and graduate student in the School of Education and Leadership and Policy Analysis,  said the results of the study’s interviews so far have revealed many adverse physical and mental health outcomes for Black women on the tenure track. Specifically, many subjects had experienced polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and other reproductive issues.

According to the National Science Foundation, only 4.4% of doctorate degrees go to Black women. Washington reflected on this paradox of needing representation in higher education but also knowing the tenure track poses many risks for marginalized individuals.

“One of my participants said, ‘They’re literally killing us,’” Washington said. “‘They’ meaning the tenure track, meaning the department meeting or faculty meeting.”

Not only are Black women less protected by higher socioeconomic status and education levels, but the process of getting to those higher levels in the first place is riskier for Black women. Black college students face higher levels of stress than white students because they have to navigate environments of racism and discrimination, which can result in negative mental and physical health outcomes.

These issues still exist for Black women in higher education because universities were not originally intended for Black women — or any women — to attend.

“Higher education in general was made from the inception … for elite white men who owned property,” Washington said. “So because it was built that way, it still supports that same structure. When you’re entering into a space that’s already not really made for you, you have a certain set of challenges that impede on you physically, spiritually and emotionally.”

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While the qualitative results from the study’s interviews reveal the personal stories behind these adverse health outcomes, Washington added that the quantitative research is important for validation in the scientific community. Quantitative data is also used for compiling evidence for research grants and providing a foundation for policy changes.

Professor of sociology at UT-Austin Bridget Goosby’s team quantitatively measures health using surveys to understand participants’ social networks, type and number of health conditions and experiences they have day to day that could affect their mental and physical health. The study is still in the testing phase.

Goosby said preliminary results reveal health is a major component of Black women’s experience on the tenure track, and the women have to learn how to cope with these health experiences while undergoing the stress of trying to get tenure.

These findings are consistent with existing literature on health disparities among Black and white people. Previous studies have found that when Black women have comparable “protective factors” to white women — matched levels of income, education, community safety and support — Black women are still more likely to have adverse health outcomes.

“African-Americans are not protected by being of higher socioeconomic status or higher educational status,” Goosby said. “And the disparity between the health of African-Americans who, for example, have PhDs and the health of whites who have the same degree is significantly different.”

The additional funding for the study, donated by the Spencer Foundation, has allowed the researchers to expand their study goals past their initial pilot program, incorporating professors in STEM fields in addition to social sciences.

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Because of the racially exclusive foundation of most universities, the researchers decided to also compare the experiences of Black women working at predominantly white institutions (PWIs) to those at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). This comparison is another expansion of the original study, made possible by the Spencer Foundation grant, and will be explored over the next three years.

As for the change researchers hope to see as a result of the study, Goosby said talking about the problem is an important first step.

“By understanding and having the voices heard of these women … we can then begin to identify intervention aspects in terms of improving the work-life quality for Black women,” Goosby said.

Shedding light on this issue can make life on the tenure track — a lonely, isolating and stressful place — safer for all individuals, Goosby said.

Ultimately, the researchers hope their findings will help generate inclusive and informed policy change for future generations of Black women in higher education.

“To be able to identify issues in the system that are creating some of these inequities or exacerbating inequities that we see … and talk about them, hopefully can help us to have a better and more informed conversation about ways that we can change policies around the tenure track and the climates that are created in these academic spaces,” Goosby said.