THE BLOG
10/03/2014 01:26 pm ET Updated Dec 03, 2014

What Captain America Can Teach Us About Diversity, Inclusion and Retention in Higher Education

Higher education continues to grapple with workplace diversity. Most senior officers in higher education will state the importance of diversifying their student body, faculty and staff. However, significant under-representation of women and minorities in senior officer and faculty positions across higher education still remains a problem. The number of women college presidents has increased since 1980, however this increase has been by 1 percentage point every two years, according to a 2014 Forbes interview with economist, Lucie Lapovsky. According to recent data, only 3 percent of all college and university presidents are women of color; this is disturbingly low and reflective of the overall landscape of higher education when it comes to faculty and administrators. The focus needs to shift towards inclusion, however this is a more difficult and nuanced task than simply diversifying the population.

By definition, most individuals at organizations know the difference between diversity and inclusion, however the act of 'doing' inclusion remains the problem. As a Black, female academic and assistant professor at a predominately white institution, I understand far too well the importance of inclusion and the pitfalls of organizations when it comes to implementation. Inclusion is less about starting initiatives and programs for minority students or making minority faculty member's head of the Black Student Union or Multicultural Studies program and more about the attitudes and behaviors of individuals that make up the institution. Initiatives and programs that target minority groups are extremely important in connecting individuals with those that are culturally similar, however on a day-to-day basis in higher education people of color are not surrounded by those who are culturally and ethnically similar to them; this is a difficult environment to work in and makes an inclusive organizational culture crucial to the retention of people of color and women.

Female and minority faculty and administrators cite persistent barriers as it relates to integration within higher education and this speaks to the lack of inclusion in higher education. There are behavioral barriers to institutional change as it relates to diversity and inclusion. A 2011, study by Gasman, Kim and Nguyen, reports that some White, male faculty refuse to acknowledge the need for faculty of color by claiming they are "colorblind". Taking this position ignores the significance of difficulties and challenges one faces when they are the only one within their department, college and/or university. Literature around recruitment and retention of women and people of color cite a lack of opportunity and support to move into leadership positions, discouragement, sabotage, lack of mentorship and unfair expectations as barriers within higher education -- the aforementioned are problems of inclusion not diversity. Furthermore, the lack of retention is a symptom of the absence of inclusion.

A prime example of the difference between diversity and inclusion is the box office hit, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Marvel and DC rarely get it right when it comes to including and writing characters of color in their stories especially when it comes to mainstream movies; however The Falcon, played by Anthony Mackie was a great example of inclusion and this time they got it right. Without getting into the fine details of the movie, The Falcon was not merely a sidekick character that had no substantial role in saving world. During an interview with MTV, Mackie stated, "It's interesting because a lot of people equate it [Cap and Falcon's relationship] to Batman and Robin, but the reality of it is it's more of a working relationship, a respect relationship as opposed to a leader and follower. The three of us [Steve, Sam and Natasha] work really well together." Too often minority characters in the mainstream comics industry are either non-existent or non-factors in the story. Captain America: The Winter Soldier utilized The Falcon as a hero, alongside Captain America throughout the movie. The world would not have been saved if it weren't for Captain America and The Falcon, as opposed to the great White lone superhero, which is the predominate portrayal of superhero's in comics. Often times, people of color and women in higher education feel as if they are the lone soldier, in which on a day-to-day basis there is a struggle to be heard, to be taken seriously and/or to be acknowledged as a contributing member of the organization. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a great example of what the inclusion of an individual should look like, as opposed to just having the person of color visible as a mark of diversity, yet restricting the role he/ she can play in the plot. Realizing that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is merely a movie, organizations struggle with the organizational inclusion aspect, and not the understanding of the need to diversify. As a member of the academic community, I have seen this all too often in higher education. It is like being invited to the dance, but no one ever asks you to dance.

The aforementioned struggles of diversity and inclusion are bi-directional in that minorities, at times, may restrict their contributions in the workplace, particularly on a social level, due to the intimidation of being the token minority, micro-aggressions and covert racism and sexism amongst other things or due to the communicative nuances of individuals at the organization who may consciously or subconsciously signify a lack of respect or acceptance, despite the mission of the organization to diversify. Many organizations today struggle, not only with recruitment, but retention and this can only be remedied with a focus and actual understanding of the importance of inclusion.