Discrimination Intensifies Faculty Stress, Saps Productivity

All college faculty feel stress in one way or another.

Among other things, they must contend with the pressure to publish, not to mention the growing number of adjunct instructors — and the threat to financial security that such university policies impose.

But does stress affect the productivity of women and people of color in a different way than it affects their white, male counterparts?

According to a recent study published in the Journal of Higher Education, yes.


Here’s what you need to know about the study:


The authors, M. Kevin Eagan, Jr. and Jason Garvey, draw the bulk of their evidence from the Higher Education Research Institute’s 2010–2011 Faculty Survey, which includes self-reported data from more than 21,000 full-time undergraduate faculty at 411 colleges and universities. The two researchers sought to ascertain “the associations between sources of stress and faculty’s activities of research, teaching, and service,” and to determine whether stress from specific sources — like family obligations and subtle discrimination in the workplace — relate to scholarly productivity, community engagement, and student-centered teaching.


The study’s respondents were 59 percent male and 83 percent white, with an average age of 50. They had been at their current institutions for an average of 12 years, and 55 percent had earned tenure.

Eagan and Garvey draw upon earlier research to contextualize their findings. For example, they place stressors into two categories — hindrance stressors and challenge stressors — and explain that the former (professional or interpersonal conflict, inadequate resources) tend to sap productivity while the latter (new demands, urgency, workload) are generally correlated with a productivity boost.

They also explain early in their paper (again, using existing literature) that women and African-American faculty experience hindrance stressors at much higher rates than do white faculty, that these marginalized groups experience subtle discrimination at both the individual level and the institutional level, that students are more likely to question the “authority and knowledge” of faculty of color, and that discrimination at the departmental or university level (which is difficult to quantify in a concrete way) likely disproportionately influences the “research, teaching, and service” of these groups.

Additional details worth noting are that female faculty carry heavier teaching loads than male professors, and that they dedicate more time both to “teaching-related involvements” and to utilizing student-centered teaching techniques than men.

Key Findings

The authors’ findings are disheartening, if not (given the above background) surprising.

Researchers detected a trend: The more discrimination a faculty member faced, the lower that person’s research productivity was. This correlation was strongest among people of color; faculty of color produced “significantly less research” than their white colleagues. In particular, faculty from a multiracial background produced less research than white faculty; those from a Latin@ background were less productive than multiracial faculty; and faculty who identify as black reported the lowest productivity.

The correlation between discrimination and productivity held along gender lines, as well. On the whole, women produced slightly less scholarship than men. Consistent with earlier research, the study also found that female faculty engage in student-centered teaching more frequently than male faculty — a time-consuming practice that diverts resources away from faculty research and toward teaching.

While it’s counterintuitive, researchers found that the correlation between stress and productivity was reversed among white faculty. In other words, white men and white women who reported stress also reported slightly higher productivity. (This is, as noted above, likely due to the fact that the principal sources of stress for white faculty differed from those of faculty of color and female faculty.)


The study’s authors warn campus administrators: “The negative association between stress due to subtle discrimination and research productivity among faculty of color represents an ominous sign,” especially due to the heavy emphasis on research in the tenure and promotion process. Their study suggests that non-white faculty are at a severe disadvantage when contending for promotion in a discriminatory or hostile campus environment.

Eagan and Garvey go on to explain that diversifying faculty across racial and gender lines is as much about retention as it is about recruitment, since discriminatory environments tend to lead to faculty flight. In addition to providing adequate support and safe spaces for female and non-white faculty to make connections and develop relationships, administrators must also provide resources and promote a more welcoming campus climate by undergoing sensitivity training and becoming “more knowledgeable about gender, race and ethnicity, and other social identities and their influences on recruitment, stress, and retention.”

Finally, this study counters the notion that increased family obligations (like deciding to have a child) create stress that negatively affects faculty productivity. This misconception has historically worked against female faculty in tenure-related decisions. Eagan and Garvey write: “Faculty from all backgrounds who encountered stress associated with family obligations did not suffer in terms of their productivity; in fact, in our models of student-centered teaching and engagement in civic-minded practices, family-related stress corresponded with greater levels of productivity.”

They argue that institutions should promote a balanced environment by increasing institutional support for faculty families, in part by providing quality child care services and departmental support for faculty who may experience fear or guilt about devoting time to family.

Research Limitations

The authors of this study acknowledge several limitations, which are themselves potentially interesting areas for investigation. For instance, they analyzed secondary data collected in an older research project, which opens the door for a more current and detailed investigation of such issues as discrimination.

Eagan and Garvey’s study only considered “subtle discrimination” relating to race and gender, but it does not account for overt discrimination as a stressor, not to mention specific institutional practices that may lead to a hostile climate. It also seemed to focus primarily on racial discrimination, despite 83 percent of respondents being white. (That said, the demographics of respondents do map rather closely to the racial and ethnic composition of faculty members nationwide.)

The authors admit that their paper does not fully elucidate “the specific discriminatory experiences causing stress for faculty,” but they draw on existing research in writing that these may be due to “unequal expectations and beliefs among faculty of color that they must work harder than their colleagues.” Conducting primary research with a range of faculty across several institutions (while considering more detailed categories and more specific questions about racism) could provide a clearer picture of non-white faculty stress and how discriminatory stressors affect research, teaching, and service. Likewise, a study focused solely on the effects of gender discrimination would also likely be eye-opening.

Another limitation is the study’s definition of productivity, which includes articles and book chapters, but not books, public writing, or performances, all of which entail different requirements, pressures, and expectations that are potentially important for the trajectory of a faculty member’s career — and whose proportions vary markedly from one discipline to another.

In terms of race, gender, age, and income breakdowns, this study was, again, limited by the research sets provided by an existing survey. A more granular approach with a more precise set of questions (not to mention a space for individual faculty members to share anecdotal evidence) would probably yield a more nuanced and complex set of data.

A Final Word

Despite its limitations, the study does make one fact clear: There is work to do — not only in gathering information about discriminatory practices, but also in taking proactive steps to counteract those practices and remedy the effects. Only in this way may faculty teach and students learn in higher-education environments that encourage all community members to be productive and creative.

Read the latest updates and opinions on education-related news, and ask the colleges you’re considering how they’re working to create positive work environments for female faculty and faculty of color.

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