Karina Goodwin, University of Colorado School of Medicine
Mirna Mattjik, Colorado School of Mines
Garrison Ortiz, Colorado State University Pueblo
FeAunte Preyear, Life University
Robin Schofield, Community College of Aurora
This case study explores appearance as an indicator of identity and as a cause of microaggressions. An equity minded dress code that is combined with diversity training, especially of human resources staff and other key personnel, can be significant factors in fostering inclusive environments. However, most dress codes in higher education do not support inclusive environments. Because microaggressions aggravate imposter syndrome, especially in environments where one is not from the dominant culture or identity, women, especially women of color, can suffer from imposter syndrome when taking high profile roles in traditionally white male arenas in higher education. Equity minded dress codes and mentorship by affinity groups can be creative ways to counteract microaggressions.
Keywords: natural hair, equity, microaggressions, imposter syndrome, Crown Act, minority tax, victim blaming, inclusive dress codes, mentorship, affinity groups
The Darling Research University (DRU) was established in 1956 to create a collaborative space for researchers to explore basic life and translational principles and examine the implications of their discoveries on humanity. Areas of study include cell biology, stem cell and development metabolism, diabetes, global health and human development, human medical genetics and geonomics, immune system biology, neuroscience and neurological disorder, and pharmacology. DRU research provides new comprehension and potential treatment for various diseases, from pediatric cancers to diabetes, and discoveries by global health and human development researchers are leading in the efforts to improve the life expectancy and quality of life for people worldwide.
The university is adjacent to the city of St. Paul, Minnesota. DRU consists of 87 faculty members, 30% of which are female. There is a limited number of executive positions within the institution, resulting in everal mid-level staff members reporting directly to the president. The DRU receives support from various organizations and entities including the National Institute of Health (NIH), The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and private foundations and individuals who value scientific inquiry.
DRU has an emerging emphasis on DEI work as the NIH has mandated an equity lens for all grant proposals; however, no formal training on DEI is required of faculty or staff.
Dr. Tamara Davis recently accepted a research lead position at the prestigious Darling Research University in Minnesota. Dr. Davis is exceptionally qualified for the role yet is nervous about starting at such a renowned organization. This is her first major research position, entering as an assistant professor.
Prior to arriving, Dr. Davis organized professional headshots to be taken for use in creating her website and for a press release announcing her hiring. For these headshots, she wore her hair in long thick box braids – a style worn by many black women showcasing their natural hair. Dr. Davis was happy with the shots, and she submitted them to DRU to be uploaded to her website. Successfully uploading her headshots helped calm some nerves in her first week at DRU.
Upon her arrival to campus six weeks later, the DRU arranged a group photoshoot for all the new hires. For this photoshoot, Dr. Davis had removed her braids, straightened her hair, and cut it into a shoulder-length bob. The day before the shoot she received an email from David Smith from HR, which informed her that they had scheduled her for professional headshots following the group photoshoot. (She had previously met with David Smith from HR to complete her new hire training and receive her badge.) The day of the photoshoot, Dr. Davis stopped by David Smith’s office to clarify what the headshots were for, as she had already submitted her previous headshots to IT to be used for her website and other marketing materials.
Mr. Smith kindly said, “Oh, I just thought you might want to have new ones taken since your hair is different and those don’t really look like you anymore. We just want to make sure we have a professional, forward-facing website.” Dr. Davis was puzzled but didn’t follow up.
She left Mr. Smith’s office unsettled, feeling rejected, confused, and questioning whether she belonged in this new role at this prestigious institution. She could not escape the paralyzing feelings of imposter syndrome and doubted whether she was capable of succeeding in this new role, and if she was truly welcomed and valued at DRU.
Later that night she reached out to Olivia Hernandez, her closest friend from college and a DEI practitioner, to address the feelings she was battling. Olivia, who was well-versed in unconscious bias and microaggressions, quickly recognized Mr. Smith’s comment as inappropriate and could see the impact it was having on Dr. Davis. Olivia advised Dr. Davis to report the incident to HR or at least confront Mr. Smith as a teachable opportunity. Because Dr. Davis was brand new to her role, the only Black faculty member, and one of only a few female faculty in the institution, she was very reluctant to ruffle feathers as she was working to build a network of her own.
The next day Dr. Davis entered the lab and had a coffee check-in with Gigi Solas, a first- generation student Dr. Davis had recently begun to mentor. Even though Dr. Davis continued to struggle with imposter syndrome, she began to realize the impact that she could have with Gigi and students like her by staffing her lab entirely with women of color. Dr. Davis decides to incorporate both photos within her website, but does not follow up with Mr. Smith in HR.
Dr. Tamara Davis is a well-known scholar in the biosciences, who has recently been hired as a director for one of the labs at DRU. As a woman of color, she has often found herself to be an outlier at the highest levels of bioscience research. Despite the incredible success that she has had early on in her professional career, she has had a strong case of imposter syndrome for most of her life. Dr. Davis possesses significant talent as a researcher but, unfortunately, faces prejudice that originates well beyond the lab.
Olivia Hernandez is Tamara’s best friend and confidant. They have known each other since college; they were first year hall mates and lived in the first-generation theme living community. Olivia is an investigative journalist and has worked as an independent contractor since they graduated. She has been hired by prominent magazines nationwide and internationally, and is well versed in issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
David Smith has worked at the research university for many years and is well versed in the institution’s cultural norms. David has been an HR professional for 23 years but has rarely worked with faculty of color. Because the biosciences field is heavily skewed towards white researchers, David has also never taken part in an HR conflict/resolution situation that involved race or discrimination. He has never worked at an institution that required any type of DEI training.
Geraldine “Gigi” Solas is a third-year student in biological engineering. Her advisor, Dr. Maurice Grant, is a project investigator for an NIH (National Institute of Health) research grant that partners with DRU. Therefore, Gigi’s dissertation is based on lab work with Dr.
Davis. Gigi is also the first generation in her family to go to college. Although Dr. Grant is her advisor, she gets along much better with Dr. Davis, in part because interacting with Dr. Grant causes a lot of anxiety for her. Gigi often asks for advice from Dr. Davis on how to face her fears, especially as a woman of color aspiring to be a stellar researcher like Dr. Davis.
This multi-faceted case should engage learners in conversation about the experience of marginalized professionals in higher education. Readers can explore concepts surrounding hair and dress discrimination in the workplace from an employer point of view. Many CEOs and HR professionals are beginning to value the importance of a workspace that emphasizes one’s personal identity over “traditional” professional appearance (Kuter, 2023). To develop an inclusive dress code, employers should discuss dress code options, promote employee ownership, adequately communicate dress code policies, and promote a gender-neutral dress code. (Indeed, 2023). The emergence of dress code as a part of modern-day DEI framework was formally recognized through recent federal legislation known as the Crown Act, which explicitly prohibits race-based hair discrimination (Crown, 2022).Prior to the Crown Act, laws under the jurisdiction of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) could be easily perceived as conflicted in the approach to an inclusive dress code as it states: “While an employer may require all workers to follow a uniform dress code even if the dress code conflicts with some workers’ ethnic beliefs or practices, a dress code must not treat some employees less favorably because of their national origin” (EEOC, 2023). National origin can, at times, be inextricably tied in dress and belief, and discriminatory dress codes can cause less favorable treatment to those with national origins that are commonly marginalized.
The concept of mentorship and affinity groups as equity strategies should also be explored. Pour-Khorshid (2018) examined the impacts of a 3-year, grassroots affinity group and its importance as a space for learning and healing. The article discusses how and why affinity groups play a critical role in supporting educators of color in their personal, political, relational, and pedagogical growth. Additionally, Thorne et.al. (2021) look at the significance of race in cross-racial mentoring relationships, using qualitative data from the experiences of 56 tenure- track faculty of color. The authors discuss three major themes that resulted: (1) factors that influence how race affect the mentoring relationship; (2) how racial difference may serve as a conferring benefit; and (3) racial differences as irrelevant to the mentoring relationship. Griffin (2020) considers the importance of, and strategies to, integrate equity-minded practices to promote access to effective mentoring opportunities for marginalized practitioners in higher education.
This case also calls upon learners to discuss the minority tax, imposter phenomenon, and the implications for underrepresented faculty in higher education. Jimenez et. al. (2019) used a nationwide survey to understand how faculty engage in diversity and inclusion activities. The authors found that underrepresented faculty disproportionately engage in diversity and inclusion work, which is work that is typically not considered or valued in the tenure and promotion process.
Faculty report that they felt as though DEI service work was valued by their institution but would not enhance their chances for promotion or tenure. Therefore, faculty reported time and money as a barrier to DEI service work. Palmer (2021) presents a succinct read on imposter phenomenon and strategies to overcome it. The author also frames institutional responsibility to facilitate an environment that diminishes this phenomenon.
There are HR training and processes to consider as well. The Society for Human Resource Management (n.d.) present an article that explores the relationship between equal employment opportunity, affirmative action, and the business model for diversity, equity, and inclusion, to include the design and elements of a DEI initiative, and to ensure diversity in recruitment and sourcing. This case study also challenges learners to examine equity-minded concepts related to the use of institutional photos and media. Jones, et al. (2022) reviews best practices for using photography to accurately include those underrepresented on campus. The authors also assert the onus of the photographer in creating a conducive environment to augment the diversity represented in the institutional photos.
On the topic of microaggressions, racial inequities, and tensions, Wong, et al. (2014) define microaggressions as ‘‘brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group’’ (Wong, et. al., 2014, p.182). The authors provide a summary of existing literature on racial microaggression and discuss gaps in the current literature surrounding the impact of microaggressions. Learners could also engage in conversation surrounding victim blaming. Cortina, Rabelo, & Holland (2018) present a scholarly publication that explores the theory of victim precipitation – the assertion that some victims invite abuse through their actions (i.e., style of dress or speech, and personality) or inactions. This publication explains the origin of this theory and examines its flaws as documented by scientists and practitioners. Additionally, the authors provide an alternate perspective and explanations for mistreatment within the workplace.
Role Play Brave Space Conversations
- Discuss what might be some conflicting challenges that Dr. Tamara Davis experiences as the only Black woman faculty member at DRU.
- One person takes the role of Dr. Davis. In a two-person dialogue, other participants enact a conversation between Dr. Davis and the HR representative, then with Dr. Davis and the research university president, and then a mentoring conversation between Dr. Davis and Gigi, the research assistant.
- Debrief the activity by considering the psychological reasoning behind the “impostor phenomenon” (Palmer, 2021).
- Supplemental resource: Cultural and Aesthetic Responses Activity (Goldstein, 2000).
Visual Hair Small Groups: Culture and Aesthetic Responses
This activity explores culture and perception by examining aesthetic responses. One’s perception of something as beautiful, pleasant, or attractive, as opposed to ugly, unpleasant, or unattractive, encompasses their aesthetic response. Through observing a range of styles of fashion, music, hairdos, etc., one can quickly conclude that cultures vary in what is determined to be aesthetically pleasing (Goldstein, 2000).
Directions: Create three samples of three culturally assorted styles of fashion (i.e., White man in a suit, Black man in baggy clothes, and a woman in a saree), and three culturally different hairstyles (I.e., Black woman with braids, White woman with long straight hair, and woman wearing a hijab head covering). Ask each participant to rank the three culturally diverse pictures on a piece of paper using “1” to indicate most liked, “2” to indicate neutral, and “3” to indicate least liked. Ask participants to share how they ranked the pictures.
- How did you make your decisions?
- Why do you like number 1 the most? Why do you like number 3 the least?
- What did you associate with each picture?
- What is the origin of your thoughts about the pictures (i.e., parents, teachers, friends, social media)?
- What inferences can you draw from looking at the pictures?
- What are the differences between the focus of the pictures?
- What are the similarities between the focus of the pictures?
- Based on your responses, do you think you have a conscious or unconscious bias?
- If you have a bias, what can you do to address the bias?
Small Group Discussion Questions
- What dynamics around institutional photos raise equity issues?
- How is Tamara’s situation different from/ similar to someone who wears their hair in a specific style or uses head coverings for cultural or religious reasons?
- How could a dress code aggravate or mitigate this issue? How could DRU approach developing a dress code through a DEI lens?
- What is imposter syndrome, and how might it impact reporting on microaggressions?
- Why are Tamara’s photos important to her student assistants? How might they be a part of the mentoring role in her all-female lab?
- Is Tamara’s hesitancy to tell the HR person about the microaggression defensible? What could she do instead? Consider Cortina, Rabelo, & Holland (2018) in your answers.
- What role does the institution play in this incident? What is the responsibility of the institution in preparing to receive faculty like Dr. Davis?
- Is a lab with only female students of color beneficial to DEI efforts at DRU?
- What is the minority tax and how might it be surfacing in this situation?
- What steps might the institution take to perpetuate a more inclusive culture?
Bigger, S. (2006). Muslim women’s views on dress code and the hijab: Some issues for education. Journal of Beliefs & Values, 27(2), 215-226.
Cortina, L., Rabelo, V., & Holland, K. (2018). Beyond blaming the victim: Toward a more progressive understanding of workplace mistreatment. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 11(1), 81-100. doi:10.1017/iop.2017.54 https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/industrial-and-organizational- psychology/article/beyond-blaming-the-victim-toward-a-more-progressive- understanding-of-workplace- mistreatment/C2933BAAB0A5BD4FC406A4A36EBDD4AF
Crown Coalition. (2023). The crown act campaign. The Crown Act. https://www.thecrownact.com/about
Goldstein, S., (2000). Cross-cultural explorations activities in culture and psychology. Abby & Bacon.
Griffin, K. A. (2020). Integrating equity-minded practice in promoting access to and outcomes of developmental relationships. In A. Kezar & J. Posselt (Eds.), Higher Education Administration for Social Justice and Equity: Critical Perspectives for Leadership (1st ed., pp. 93-110). Routledge.
Indeed. (2023) Inclusive dress code policy: A guide for employers. https://www.indeed.com/hire/c/info/inclusive-dress-code-policy
Jimenez, M. F., Laverty, T. M., Bombaci, S. P., Wilkins, K., Bennett, D. E., & Pejchar, L. (2019). Underrepresented faculty play a disproportionate role in advancing diversity and inclusion. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 3(7), 1030–1033. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559- 019-0911-5
Jones, T., Scott, C., McSpadden, J., & Pitts, A. (2022). Inclusive and diverse photography.University Photographers’ Association of America. https://upaa.org/sites/default/files/Inclusive_and_diverse_photography-final.pdf
Kezar & J. Posselt (Ed.), Higher education administration for social justice and equity: critical perspectives for leadership. Routledge.
Kurter, H. L. (2023). Companies striving for diversity and inclusion are rethinking their dress code policy. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/heidilynnekurter/2019/06/23/2-simple-ways-to-cultivate-a-culture-of-diversity-and-inclusion-through-self-expression/?sh=4f30d9b110af
Pour-Khorshid, F. (2018). Cultivating sacred spaces: A racial affinity group approach to support critical educators of color. Teaching Education, 29(4), 318–329. https://doi.org/10.1080/10476210.2018.1512092
Society for Human Resource Management. (n.d.) Introduction to the human resources discipline of diversity, equity, and inclusion. https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/tools-and-samples/toolkits/pages/introdiversity.aspx
Thorne, K. M., Jones, M. K., Davis, T. M., & Settles, I. H. (2021). The significance of race in cross-racial mentoring of faculty of color. Translational Issues in Psychological Science, 7(4), 462–472. https://doi.org/10.1037/tps0000286
Wong, G., Derthick, A., David, E. J. R., Saw, A., & Okazaki, S. (2014). The what the why and the how: A review of racial microaggressions research in psychology. Springer US, 6(2), 181–200. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12552-013-9107-9
About the Authors
Karina Goodwin serves as the Admission Manager for the University of Colorado School of Medicine. There, she provides strategic leadership, program innovation and process implementation to uphold the mission of inclusive excellence at CUSOM through an equity-centered admissions process. Karina is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in Education at the University of Colorado Denver with a focus on Leadership for Educational Equity in Higher Education.
Mirna Mattjik, a Teaching Associate Professor in the Engineering, Design, and Society Department at Colorado School of Mines, excels in teaching design engineering. She is also affiliated with the University Scholars and Honors Program and the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences Department. Her educational background spans industrial technology, international political economy, project management, and leadership. Pursuing her doctorate, her research centers on educational equity in higher education.
Garrison Ortiz is currently the CFO for Colorado State University Pueblo. Garrison previously served on the Colorado State Board for Community Colleges and Occupational Education (SBCCOE). He also served his community as Pueblo County Commissioner for nearly seven years. He is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Colorado Denver in the Leadership for Educational Equity in Higher Education program.
FeAunte Preyear serves as the Title IX Coordinator at Life University where she oversees the university’s compliance with federal regulations. She has over 12 years of experience serving within Title IX, and she has coordinated an extensive amount of sexual violence prevention programming. Ms. Preyear is currently completing a doctoral degree in leadership for educational equity at the University of Colorado.
Robin Schofield loves serving students as the Executive Director of the Teaching and Learning Transformation Hub at the Community College of Aurora. Robin is an organizing member of High-Impact Practices (HIPs in the States) at the National Assessment Institute and president of RoJo Solutions, educational consulting. Professor Schofield has been an educator for over 35 years and is deeply committed to community and human flourishing. Her pursuits have taken her across the globe, and locally, into public service as a school board director. Robin is the current executive editor of Cases on Leadership for Equity and Justice in Higher Education, and a doctoral candidate at the University of Colorado Denver.