University of British Columbia professor Annette Henry’s role as a mentor isn’t always limited to the students in her classes. Dr. Henry, who has written about the experience of black female professors in Canada, and is black herself, has also had students she has never taught seek her out.
“They’ll come and tell me the most horrific stories,” Dr. Henry says. “[They are] black students who experience racism and discrimination and need to talk to someone who understands, even though that [student] might be in science or engineering, and I’m in education.”
Such interactions are part of what Dr. Henry and other academics refer to as the “emotional labour” that often falls disproportionately on faculty of colour, as black, Indigenous and other non-white students increasingly turn to a relatively small segment of university teaching staff for support. Currently, there is a push for Canadian universities to take such unpaid work into account, particularly when it comes to assessing professors and instructors for promotion and tenure.
“I think there are just so many things that are under the radar that are part of one’s day,” Dr. Henry says.
According to Dr. Henry, universities need to start thinking about why people of colour are overloaded, change their hiring practices to encourage a more inclusive and racially representative faculty, pay attention to curriculum diversity, and question why non-white faculty members leave their university jobs.
“I think we need to make some huge structural changes,” Dr. Henry says.
Dr. Ayesha Chaudhry, who teaches in the University of British Columbia’s Institute of Gender, Race and Social Justice, said such emotional labour includes supporting students and educating administrators about race and racism.
In late April, Dr. Chaudhry and more than 20 academics organized a workshop that explored various forms of such emotional labour and potential strategies for universities to deal with it.
She said during the workshop, participants discussed examples of such labour and emphasized that, in addition to hiring more faculty members of colour, universities need to change their culture to recognize the unique experiences of non-white faculty.
For Dr. Chaudhry, one of the first steps to improving that university culture is recognizing that racism exists.
“If the conversation is always about proving that racism exists, then you can’t do anything about it,” she says. “If you assume racism exists, then you can think about, ‘How do we address this? How do we lower the burden for BIPOC [black, Indigenous and people of colour] faculty? How do we make sure that their labour is counted and accounted for?’ That’s what we are thinking about.”
A recent equity report published by the Canadian Association of University Teachers argued that “institutions and academic staff associations need to look more critically at the structures and practices that perpetuate inequities.”
The report found that professors of colour continue to be underrepresented and earn less on average than their white counterparts. It also found that, proportionally, students of colour outnumber professors: Only 1.4 per cent of university professors identify as Indigenous, even though 5 per cent of undergraduate students identify as Indigenous, Métis or Inuk. Just over 20 per cent of university professors identify as black or racialized, compared to 36 per cent of students.
Aftab Erfan of UBC’s Equity and Inclusion Office says her department and the Faculty of Arts are currently working on a project to explore invisible labour.
“We know from the literature that many Indigenous and racialized faculty feel that they face barriers, that they experience forms of prejudice, and that they perform invisible labour within the university that is not adequately recognized,” Dr. Erfan says.
“In this research project, we are asking UBC faculty members to what degree this is true for them and how − and we are comparing the responses of Indigenous and racialized faculty with non-Indigenous and non-racialized faculty.”
University of Alberta political science professor Malinda Smith characterizes emotional labour in Canadian universities as “constant” and “unrecognized.” She also urges people to acknowledge that emotional labour “tends to be highly gendered.”
“Generally speaking, women engage in more of this kind of labour than their male counterparts,” she says. “The skills that go into performing this kind of work are undervalued, in part because they’re invisible and ignored.”
She says that universities need to acknowledge that emotional labour takes time away from the academic work that does get counted towards tenure and promotions, thus negatively impacting career trajectories of BIPOC scholars, particularly women.
“I was sitting, reflecting, actually, on the amount of hours I’ve spent responding to requests for support from students and faculty and administrators, not only in my institution but across Canada,” Dr. Smith says.
“People ask me these questions quite genuinely because of my research, but if I were to respond to all of them in the way that they deserve I would have no time − or very little time − to do my work as a professor,” she adds.