Spencer Foundation grant allows UW–Madison researchers to build on study of health outcomes for Black women in academia

UW-Madison’s Rachelle Winkle-Wagner and the University of Texas, Austin’s Bridget Goosby have received another grant from the Spencer Foundation to continue building on their important work examining how racial stress within higher education relates to health outcomes for Black women in academia.

After receiving a $50,000 grant in the spring of 2020, Winkle-Wagner and Goosby’s new award is for $499,997 and a project titled, “Do Campus Contexts Make Black Women Faculty Sick? A National Study of Black Women Academics’ Health Outcomes at Historically Black and Predominantly White Postsecondary Institutions.”

Winkle-Wagner says that together, these projects will mark the single largest study with Black women faculty members that has been conducted.

In addition to Winkle-Wagner, the research team on the UW–Madison campus is composed of Black, women scholars who are pursuing their doctorates through the School of Education’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis (ELPA).  These students are: Khadejah Ray, Paris Wicker, Janella Benson, LaShawn Washington, Imani Barnes, and Ashley Gaskew.

ELPA Research Team
Members of the Spencer Foundation grant research team from UW–Madison include (top left, clockwise) doctoral students Imani Barnes, Janella Benson, Khadejah Ray, Paris Wicker, and LaShawn Washington, and Professor Rachelle Winkle-Wagner. Ashley Gaskew is not pictured. (Photo: Sarah Maughan)

Winkle-Wagner and Goosby explain that through this work they are dedicated to elevating Black women academics, many of whom have often been made invisible in academia.

“We are exploring how faculty roles, and the institutions in which faculty work, might relate to the kind of racial and gender stress that has been evidenced to make people sick,” says Winkle-Wagner, a professor with ELPA. “In our pilot study, we found that higher education institutions normalize severe racial and gender stress and sickness as simply part of the faculty job for Black women — and we are questioning that and wanting to change it.”

Adds Winkle-Wagner: “Our project is not just about experiences for Black women faculty members and whether they are good or bad. Our work is quite literally about life and death for many of the Black women faculty members in the project. Our hope is to create recommendations for safe, healthier, and more affirming campuses so that Black women faculty members can thrive — and stay healthier, too.”

With the Spencer Small Grant funding from 2020, plus additional support from UW–Madison, Winkle-Wagner explains how the researchers collected mixed methods data via four rounds of national surveys with a cohort of 154 Black women academics and two rounds of interviews (102 interviews total) with approximately 54 Black women faculty members in social sciences disciplines from across the nation. This work allowed the research team to closely examine the conditions under which Black women academics in the social sciences experience racial stress, how they cope, and the degree to which stressors relate to their health profile during tenure and beyond.

Winkle-Wagner and Goosby
Winkle-Wagner (left) and Goosby

“The project was important and impactful for members of the team because most of these doctoral students want to become faculty members themselves and they also identify as Black women,” says Winkle-Wagner. “The doctoral students were interviewing people who have been faculty members and know what it means to be working in higher education — and it allowed our team members to contemplate what it might be like for their own careers. It is Bridget Goosby’s and my goal that this project is also used as a research training effort to produce more Black women faculty members in academia.”

The new Spencer Large Grant project extends this mixed-methods project to allow the research team to expand to Black women faculty members in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. The project will then compare results across Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and predominantly white institutions (PWIs) nationally over the next three years.

The central research question examines to what degree do the health profiles of tenure-line faculty members who are Black women differ across HBCUs vs. PWIs,  and whether factors including exposures to racism and sexism influence health, and how they cope with such conditions.

The UW–Madison researchers will lead the qualitative side of the project, which includes interviews with Black women faculty members, while the team at the University of Texas, Austin, will conduct the quantitative analysis conducting panel surveys with the same Black women faculty members.

“Being a part of this project has been an amazing experience,” says Ray, a fifth-year PhD student. “I have a space where I’m able to center Black women in my work, while also gaining valuable training on what it means to be part of a research project. I’ve learned how to put a grant together and how to recruit participants and train a team on conducting interviews for this research. Being in this community with other Black women with similar interests has been a remarkable graduate school experience.”

Currently, only 3.6 percent of all tenure-line faculty members across the United States are Black. Previous research has indicated that Black women are at a disproportionate risk for adverse health — including higher rates of chronic illness— relative to their white counterparts. Research also shows that Black women with terminal degrees remain at high risk for racialized stress exposure and the associated health risks. In addition, studies indicate that higher education, in particular, can be a location of significant racial stress.

“The goal is that one day we can use the team’s findings from this research to help inform future policy and practice related to equity and retention of Black scholars nationally,” says Winkle-Wagner.

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