22 September 2015

The Problem with the Phrases “Women and Minorities” and “Women and People of Color”

Yolanda Flores Niemann Yolanda Flores Niemann

The phrases “women and minorities” and “women and people of color” can be seen and heard daily in newspaper articles, statistical reports, political rhetoric, and organizational statements in support of diversity. Yet the use of these phrases is highly problematic. 

The phrases “women and minorities” and “women and people of color” can be seen and heard daily in newspaper articles, statistical reports, political rhetoric, and organizational statements in support of diversity. Yet the use of these phrases is highly problematic because these phrases irreverently and visibly ignore the reality that women of color are women and people of color—and they are also minorities. The phrases, thus, make women of color invisible while defining white women as the de facto norm. They minimize the intersectional realities that both link and separate white women, men of color, and women of color and that are reflected in the essays in the book Presumed Incompetent.

These narratives focus on the lives of women of color in academia and underscore the distinction between their experiences and those of white women faculty at universities. Even more than fifty years after Lyndon Johnson made affirmative action the law of the land, the realities of women of color are more similar to those of men of color than to those of white women. According the Digest of Education Statistics, in 2013, out of a grand total of 791,391 faculty members in degree-granting universities, 436,456 (55%) were male, and 354,935 (45%) were female. Among the females, 258,579 (73%) were white, and among males, 316,912 (73%) were white. In contrast, the combined total for black, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander, American Indian, Alaska native, and faculty of two or more races was 157,480 (20% of the grand total). Among this group, 73,575 (47%) were female and 83,905 (53%) were male. This means that only 9 percent were women of color and only 11 percent were men of color.

The differences in faculty representation between whites and people of color are starker when disaggregated by professional rank of the faculty, for example, full, associate, and assistant professors and instructors. These data exist in spite of the fact that for several decades virtually all faculty position advertisements include the phrase “women and minorities are encouraged to apply.” Here I focus on one aspect of academia—faculty representation—but the data reflect differences that exist in many domains, including health, political representation, corporate employment, and the criminal justice system. We cannot continue to justify the use of the phrases “women and minorities” and “women and people of color.” We can no longer pretend that the realities of white women and women of color are the same.


Yolanda Flores Niemann (PhD, Psychology, 1992, University of Houston) is professor of psychology at the University of North Texas and coedited, with Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, Carmen G. Gonzalez, and Angela P. Harris, Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia.