Yesterday I took a nap and had a dream about diversity . In it, I was talking to colleagues in my department about a research presentation that I had to give later that day. As I looked around the table, I saw the same people I’d always seen except for one minority female faculty colleague. As I sat around that table talking the same old talk with the same old people, I felt tears welling up in my eyes. (These tears felt so real that when I woke up, my heart hurt, and I felt genuine sadness. )
I realized that the tears were closely connected to the fact that my colleague had been all but ignored during her last year at our institution. When she didn’t earn tenure a year earlier, I stopped seeing her at meetings, and no one mentioned her name. This woman had been a faithful employee at my institution for ten years, and, as far as I know, no one had even given her an engraved pen for her decade of service at the university. Within this dream, I talked to my colleagues, but I felt empty and was reminded of a phrase I’ve penned, “People are here and gone before anyone ever knew they were here.”
This colleague’s story is one of many at this and other institutions- stories that will never make CNN or be protested about with a corresponding Twitter hashtag. I can’t begin to tell you how many of my minority colleagues have been bullied by members of majority AND minority communities; overlooked for top-level administrative positions; ignored and disrespected by colleagues; and assigned work that others didn’t want to do or didn’t have the interest to do. Instead of being respected for overcoming a lifetime of obstacles as academics of color, we are often ignored and talked about for not doing things the way that they have always been done. Instead of being mentored or challenged about a lack of productivity or being coached about ways to navigate the higher education system, we are pitied by “advocates” who didn’t quite know how to engage with or have real conversations with us.
Although I have garnered numerous awards and been validated for being a good academic citizen, I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that being a woman of color in the academy has taught me to be bound by what others think about me and by the access that (I think) people in power can and cannot give me as an academician. After a life-changing event in my department, I reclaimed my life. Instead of hiding my views and overlooking injustices, I created a personal website with blogs that reflect my direct perspectives. I started my own business. Instead of working only on “safe” research, I began to work on research projects informed from my experiences as a woman of color and aligned with my passion for innovation and tech diversity. I branched out by speaking at tech conferences in Los Angeles and Atlanta. I hired (and parted ways) with a publicist. I hired a makeup artist and a stylist to freshen my looks. I bought and wore wigs and extensions. I joined Periscope. Each of these activities freed me from having to apologize for being a woman of color in the academy and from being different. They freed me from having to explain myself and for not fitting in a pre-defined box about what it means to be an academician or to be successful in the academy.
I choose to be honest, and I choose to stay and leave the academy on my own terms. I don’t want people crying for me in the same way that I have hurt and cried for my colleagues. Instead, I want them to say, “Dr. Monica F. Cox lived her academic life on her own terms and with no regrets!” I want people to realize that diversity is defined beyond my skin color or gender. My diversity is also embodied in the quirky, direct way that I respond to situations and the fearlessness in which I live my life and love the people in it. I realize that my voice represents the perspectives of numerous minority colleagues who never had a chance to speak up for themselves or who are too afraid to do so. I’ve always had high self-esteem but I REALLY like this new and improved Monica.
We live in a society where people feel sorry for individuals who are uneducated, but the reality is that many people with the title of Ph.D. are not really free to be themselves and to express their views. One of my biggest wishes for the academic community is for people to voice their concerns without fear. I hear so many people who know the truth about situations in their workplaces, but they are too afraid to speak up and speak out. We are taught to fear during the Ph.D. process, and we are taught to fear during the tenure process. If you are the first or only of your kind, you are cautious about doing anything that might misrepresent your entire group.
At what point do we put fear aside and start speaking up so that others who come after us do not suffer in the same ways that we have? One of the reasons that I started my business was so that if I ever need to do it, I can walk away from any job or situation that makes me compromise my beliefs or will not allow me to express my thoughts. There are too many people who walk around with advanced degrees and “power”, but they are more bound than prisoners in shackles.
Some of the best professional advice that I have ever received came from Dr. Lesia Crumpton-Young, a senior female colleague, mentor, and engineering professor who advised me to find a “Bad Day Buddy” (BDB). Although a person would hope not to have any bad days on a job (Ha!), a BDB is a valuable resource for any professional. A BDB is needed to offer consistent feedback and to be a sounding board with whom you can share your professional (and sometimes personal) ups and downs. Although a BDB relationship can be informal, I suggest that both parties formalize the BDB relationship by defining mutually beneficial terms of this relationship. Of all the new faculty advice that I have received, connecting to a BDB has been the most applicable!
My BDB is a my homegirl and is like a sister to me. We are both African-American engineering faculty born and raised in the South. We attended Spelman College (6 years apart) and majored in math. We have lived in Nashville, Tennessee, and we obtained our Ph.D.s from Vanderbilt University. At one point, we attended the same church but at different times. She and I are both engineering professors in Indiana, a place where black engineering female professors are rare. In spite of our parallel paths, we did not meet until I became an Assistant Professor 10 years ago. People told me for years that I needed to connect to her, but we never did. She invited my husband and me to dinner, and the rest is history!
Adding a BDB to your network will enhance your life greatly. Following are some tips to help you to identify your own “Bad Day Buddy!”
(1) You should like her as a person.
I enjoy my BDB’s personality. Her laid back mannerism complements my somewhat over-the-top, slightly opinionated (!) personality. We are both direct, which is fine with me since I don’t like to assume where I stand with people. (My philosophy is that people will either like me or they won’t. If they don’t like me, they can move on. Life is too short to engage in meaningless relationships.). I can spend hours with her. We text each other at random times. We laugh at the same jokes. Although we initially discussed only work, we soon realized that we enjoy some of the same TV shows and enjoy analyzing them the same way. We encounter similar family issues and now offer advice to each other about ways to balance our personal and professional lives. I don’t have to be “Dr. Cox” with her, and this allows us to have great, engaging conversations.
BDB Finder Tip: When you are around your potential BDB, do you feel that you can talk for hours? Do you find yourself sharing information that you rarely discuss with others? Is there a friendship spark that you can’t explain? If the answers are yes, she might your BDB.
(2) She should be available for mentoring moments at various times during the workday.
Before you stop reading this post completely, let me clarify what I mean when I say availability. Your BDB is not someone who you text or call on a Monday, and she contacts you on Friday. She is someone who will contact you at her earliest convenience, hopefully that same day. This is what makes a BDB relationship special.
This “on call” relationship should not be problematic, however, since your BDB is not someone you are going to call every day of your professional life. Your BDB should offer you timely, objective advice and should guide you until your crisis has passed. Remember, this is your “Bad Day” buddy, and you will not have bad days every day!
BDB Finder Tip: Note the availability of your BDB. If he/she doesn’t respond to you before your situation passes, this person might not be your BDB. The same holds true for your availability. It will take time to confirm that this is a solid BDB relationship, but when it’s right, you will know it.
(3) She should NOT be employed in your organization.
As much as you like your colleagues down the hall, they should not be your BDBs. Until you know that you can trust them 100% with your information, sharing your real thoughts and feelings with them could prove disastrous, especially if you work in a competitive environment. (I even recommend that you do not add anyone in your environment to your private social media accounts unless you can really trust them.)
Having a BDB outside of my organization helps me to strategize without bias. After explaining any unusual happenings, she offers me an objective lens from which to make decisions and to move ahead. Before I do this, however, I share my real, in the moment thoughts with her and offer ridiculous solutions and responses that I would never implement in the workplace. In this way, my BDB prevents me from responding unprofessionally to my colleagues. For this, I am grateful!
BDB Finder Tip: Engage with people face-to-face at conferences or in casual settings to see if a BDB relationship could blossom. Test the waters by sharing some personal information. Seek advice, and notice how the person listens and responds. If she responses soundly and shares some of her experiences also, this might be a BDB!
(4) She should be authentic and should appreciate your authenticity.
As you can tell, I am opinionated. The thing that I love about my BDB is that she doesn’t try to change this about me. Having a BDB doesn’t mean that I want someone who is trying to fix or to correct me all of the time. If I am irrational, my BDB and I discuss this and I listen to her, because she does not judge me for having and for expressing my opinions. She meets me where I am, and we sort through my problems based on my temperament and my preferences. Because I’m decisive, I offer responses to her questions in a direct manner, and she often receives my advice quickly and in the spirit in which I am offering it.
BDB Finder Tip: In your conversation with a potential BDB, throw out something that you would only share with those closest to you. Note the response. If it’s guarded, defensive, or judgmental, this might not the BDB for you. Remember, you’re trying to find someone with whom you can keep it 100!
(5) She should have some knowledge of your profession and the nuances of this profession.
I am blessed to have a BDB who is also an engineering professor. For this reason, I can discuss teaching and administrative issues that I face and tell her my issues without having to provide organizational background information all of the time. We can then come up with quick solutions and move forward.
BDB Finder Tip: Talk to your professional colleagues and friends about possible BDBs. Allow them to present you with initial candidates. These referrals could reduce the amount of time that you use seeking like-minded peers.
In conclusion, BDBs are valuable resources who can offer new perspectives, sound advice, and constant encouragement as you navigate your professional journey and seek mentoring opportunities. Although it may take time to locate your BDB, this time is worth the investment. Best wishes on connecting to one of the most important people in your life!
As a professor, I have found that things are not always what they seem to be, especially at work. If I have learned nothing else, it’s been to explore multiple sides of a story.
Last week, my professional life changed for the better. First, colleagues and I obtained a $1.4 million National Science Foundation to explore why women in engineering, particularly women of color, persist in the academy despite the numerous barriers that they encounter. This grant was motivated by the numerous experiences that I have had as a black woman engineering faculty member. Second, I announced that I am in late-term negotiations with The Ohio State University.
Ten years after starting my job as an Assistant Professor, I can offer tips to other faculty about how to know that a work culture is a good fit for you and how to decide when it is time to depart that environment. I hope that these tips will help people who are questioning whether they are in the right environments and whether it’s time to transition to a new one.
1. You are almost always unhappy at work.
A few years ago, I recall walking up to my office after Winter break and starting to cry. These weren’t microscopic tears but big, watery crocodile tears. I had spent the holidays with my husband and our families, and when I walked back on campus, I felt as if I was being led to the electric chair. At the time, I didn’t reflect deeply about why I was so upset. Now I realize that I felt that I couldn’t be my authentic self at work. I taught students who didn’t accept my instructional style, and I didn’t know how I would progress to my next administrative level. As a result, I found myself getting sadder with each passing semester.
If no one else tells you this, trust me that you are not supposed to cry on your way to work about the work that you have to do at work. Dig deep to identify the root of your frustration and sadness. If something can be changed, change it. If nothing can be changed, consider changing your environment. Your health and future depend on it!
2. You start to question your worth.
I’m always been extremely confident and outgoing. Professionally, I had earned a Presidential Award (from President Barack Obama) and had graduated numerous doctoral students who were engaging in successful careers. Nevertheless, I noticed that my complete identity was framed within the context of being a professor. The humorous, direct Monica Cox was gone. I felt as if my value as a person was relegated to an annual double-sided sheet of paper that more often than not informed me of my inadequacies. I wasn’t publishing enough papers, I wasn’t bringing in enough grant money, and I wasn’t eradicating war in the world (just kidding, but it felt as if this was a possible expectation too!).
Now I tell young professionals that they have to know their worth before they enter the workplace. They must know what they will and will not tolerate in their lives. If you are in this situation, set boundaries and stick to them by not allowing anyone to discredit your value and your potential to do great things. I know what it’s like to worry that you will be fired or that senior faculty won’t accept or approve of you. Here’s a harsh reality. If you go crazy and have to leave your job because of health reasons, a new person will set up shop in your office before you get settled in the hospital.
3. You have to be two completely different people- one at work and one at home.
I consider myself to be the life of the party. I love my loud colors and my fashionable clothes. Over time, however, I found myself looking like a frumpy mess. My work environment stressed me out so much that I no longer made an effort to dress up or be the flashy person I always was. I found myself blending into an environment where my sassy ways were misinterpreted, my constructive criticism became offensive, and my uniqueness was perceived as my not being a team player. To advance professionally, I found myself assimilating, which didn’t reflect my true self at all.
One day when I got angry enough at the critiques, I stopping trying to be correct and safe. I stopped analyzing how my dress, words, actions, etc., would be interpreted. I realized that the people who knew and respected me knew and respected me. The ones who misinterpreted and misunderstood everything that I said had no desire to get to know me or to be inclusive to me. I’m now back to the real Monica- the person who is happier than I’ve been in many years.
4. You don’t connect with colleagues and/or your boss.
Although you don’t have to be best friends with the people in your unit, there should be some connection. For many years, the people with whom I worked were people with whom I wouldn’t even want to engage with in any setting, let alone a nonacademic work setting. Sure, there are people with whom I could connect, but the majority of time was spent engaging in what I consider to be straight up corniness. I found my conversations with others to be forced and odd, our jokes not to align, and our values to be different. It was just plain awkward and uncomfortable for me to be in social and professional situations.
I often tell people that although I don’t speak a different language, being a minority in a majority environment reminds me of being bilingual. I have to speak the dominant, majority language most of the day. I can’t slip up and mention BET and R&B culture, and I can’t use my colloquial terms too much. I have to remember to smile when I offer critiques so that my sharpness is not perceived as belligerence, and so that people do not take my words personally. I’ve come to realize that I see inequities like many people see their hands in front of their faces. I find myself getting tired of explaining why an activity isn’t inclusive and why people should care about exclusivity.
Being someone other than your authentic self is tiring and isn’t sustainable. Take a hard look at whether you are comfortable and whether you connect to other professionals who “get” you. If something isn’t quite right, trust your instincts, and identify some plans for remedying the situation.
5. You feel hopeless.
Hopelessness can be very real. Going through the issues above and feeling as if you have no professional plans for the future can make you feel empty and alone. At some point, you have to drag yourself out of a negative place and develop a plan for moving ahead in a positive manner.
I left the hopelessness behind by reflecting a lot on what I liked and what I didn’t like. I knew that I needed to work with engaging people. I needed to lead. I needed my voice to be heard. I needed to be respected. I needed to be near people who were innovative. I needed to be surrounded by people who understood diversity and inclusion.
Tap into your values, and determine what will bring you joy. Connect to that, and move into situations and collaborations that align with your happiness. You won’t be disappointed.
6. You are stressed all of the time.
Yes, stress is a part of life. No, stress should not be a part of your life all of the time. Good stress connects to an engaging vision and to positive outcomes. Bad stress leads to despair and hopelessness.
When you give your all to a job, and you feel as if you have little to show for your efforts, something is wrong. I’ve been there and done that. I was lost and didn’t know how to align my passions with the actual work that I did. As result, I felt as if I was in a downward spinal. The external success didn’t align with my inner distress and turmoil. Something had to change, and it did. I’ve also seen close friends who have been stressed out by the academy and have undergone discrimination and situations that no one should have to endure.
I believe in strategy and planning. Next year should be better than this year. Five years should be better than next year. If you can’t envision this, identify ways to clear your thinking so that you can see a vision that propels you to a new level. Relax, relate, and release!
7. Your values don’t align with the organization or with rewards within that culture.
This is the biggest issue of all for me. I am very aware of my values and how I want to operationalize these values in my life. Throughout many of my experiences, I found that people didn’t respond to issues the way that I would. For example, when someone duplicated my research efforts, people weren’t up in arms about pursuing an investigation. When I tried to convince a diversity officer that minority faculty should be a priority at my institution, I was given the run around and given numerous reasons why it shouldn’t be a priority. A student threatened me, and my e-mail filing the complaint was “lost” although I could find it in my own outbox. I was threatened by someone who still works at the institution. I was publicly humiliated by someone in authority, yet I was the person who was ridiculed and questioned for my behavior. I could go on and on, but I think that you get the picture.
At some point, you must decide when you will stop compromising your values. I did just that when I realized that I couldn’t predict what would happen in many situations at my institution. I could no longer rely on people to respond in the way that I would. In all fairness, this may relate to cultural issues. Nevertheless, authenticity is vital to me, and if I believe in something, I will fight for it until I die.
Are you still unsure about whether you should transition professionally? Life is too short for you to be unhappy. If you over analyze situations like I do, you may cause much harm to yourself before you even realize that there is a problem to address. I’ve been sad and down, and I’ve been optimistic and confident. I highly recommend that if you are in a negative space at work, start identifying what your next steps for success are today.
Over the past few months, I’ve been somewhat obsessed with character in leadership. One of the key books that has framed by thinking about this topic is Myles Munroe’s Power of Character in Leadership. Although I’ve attended numerous higher education leadership training programs, I admit that character is a topic that I’ve never heard covered. As a Christian, I obtain some teaching about character and moral development within ministries that I have attended. From a professional perspective, it seems that the topic of character is perceived to be too “preachy” in traditional workplaces. For this reason, I want to present lessons that I have learned about character development and from Dr. Munroe’s teachings.
(1) You lead with your life.
This means that no matter how charismatic you are, if you say one thing, and do another, your character is questioned and questionable. For many people, individuals don’t realize that actions and words may differ until they work intimately with someone. In our society, it’s easy to agree with wrong actions when money or some other reward is attached to it.
I found this out via my collaboration with a public figure. This person has worked with Oprah Winfrey and is visible in numerous ways. To the outside world, his words are truth, but the people closest to him know that he alienates people and is somewhat selfish, particularly if he perceives that he is not getting the biggest chunk out of a collaboration. Despite the way that he treats and discards people who challenge him, these people remain connected to him.
Initially, I was upset. I thought that if our team banded together and called out his crazy behavior, he would stop being such a bully. I realized, however, that the people who know about him will never confront him about his weaknesses. As a result, they continue to remain connected to him with (possibly real?) hopes that he will open big doors for them. My study on character, however, predicts that he will not change. If he is not called out by someone, he will continue to treat people the same way, and this is very sad.
(2) You are consistent regardless of context.
Whether it is Monday or Sunday, at your core, you are the same. This means that people know who you are regardless of context. If you believe something, this is evident in what you do and what you say.
I believe that one of the reasons that so many people adore the Kardashians is that you know what they are about- glamour, fame, and money. They are not trying to be preachers or school teachers. They are celebrities, and everything that they do reflects that.
Character is the same way. People want that same predictability in their professional lives. When a decision needs to be made, people know you are either going to be a leader who is fair or unfair, transparent or closed. You are who people perceive you to be, and this perception is based on your character.
(3) Principles mean more to you than being popular.
We live in a society where the currency of acceptance is social media likes. The more Facebook likes you have have, the more people agree with what you have said. To many people this then connects back to one’s value as a person. The same applies to Twitter or Instagram followers. The greater the number of people who follow you, the greater the “influence” that you have over others.
What if you chose to post something that challenged the majority of your followers’ opinions? I did this very thing by challenging the actions of members at a diversity team at my university. Although many minorities wanted to support a women of color in leadership because there are so few of us at the university, this woman did little to no work (in my opinion). She was a bully who dictated to others and who was not accountable for her actions. As a result, people inside and outside of her organization knew that her leadership skills were subpar. Few people, however, were willing to call her out about her behavior. As a result, overall diversity efforts suffered, and faculty of color attrition reached an all-time high.
What if, instead of whispering behind closed doors about problems and her poor leadership skills, people had boldly approached this woman? If she would not listen, this would be no problem. The principle behind that position is to enhance efforts to increase the representation and experiences of diverse groups in the organization. She reports to someone. That person reports to someone. Character means that someone or a group would not have stopped until diversity efforts were improved for all, with or without this woman. Unfortunately, popularity got in the way of principle. This woman left her job. A new leader completely restructured her organization and diversity efforts. Today, people are no better off than they were before her departure. A focus on character could have possibly retained numerous jobs, maybe even hers.
(4) You will lay down your life for what you believe.
My initial reason for starting this blog was to speak my truth. I realized that in organizations, it is easy to be a person of character and to approach someone who does not agree with what you say and doesn’t want to address deeper issues that you present to him/her. I can’t begin to tell you how many e-mails have gotten “lost” and how many people haven’t responded to my concerns. After all, it is easier to pretend that you never saw a problem than to address the problem head on.
Anything that I write is something that I will talk about to a person’s face. Ask me a direct question, and I’ll give you a direct answer. If you misunderstand my words or intentions, that’s not my problem. As a human being, I have a right to express my views and my character. If someone disagrees, I’m okay with that. Be ready, however, to engage in a lively discussion about our differences.
In conclusion, my study on character in leadership is changing my life. My professional and personal circles are small, because of my views about character. If a person can’t remain the same regardless of what comes his/her way, I don’t want him/her in my inner circle. Sure, we can hang out, but beyond that, we are probably not going to connect. Give me someone whose “yea is yea and nay is nay” more than someone who is tossed about with any idea that is offered to him/her.
People will be drawn to you because of your character. Power without character is deadly, and we must make deliberate choices to develop our character every day.
Christmas 2015 brought with it a loss until any other that I ahve experienced. Although many people know why others do not. Since authenticity and transparency are traits that I hold dear, I am finally ready to reveal that on December 25, 2015, my first child was due. Unfortunately, nine weeks into an ultra high risk, complicated, brief pregnancy, my baby died.
I was sad, but more than anything, this experience allowed me to reflect upon my life in ways that I had never done before. Since my brother-in-law, Lavelle, had died in his sleep only a few months earlier, I saw 2015 as a year of loss. While trying to maintain my research and professional life and to transition from one work environment to another, I experienced physical pain unlike any other. In the summer of 2015, I underwent two surgeries- (1) a dilation and curettage to remove the embryo from my uterus, and (2) a more intense in-patient surgery to remove a growth that my specialist suspected might have killed my baby.
Things that were major prior to this personal tragedy suddenly became minor. As someone who had to be strong for others at almost all times, I took time to mourn my loss with my husband and to find ways to live my life more purposefully. Below are some of the lessons that I learned. I hope that these will be particularly relevant for people who are “go to” people or have numerous responsibilities personally and professionally.
Clean out your network.
When I was ill, my bandwidth was really low. I realized that many of the people who needed to ask me questions could find the answers to these “urgent” questions in my absence. I also realized that I had little to no tolerance for people who were extremely needy and had no desire to become more responsible in their interactions with me. My inner circle became tighter, and I found myself being really selective about with whom I worked. This is a practice that I’ve brought into 2016.
Just say “No.”
This seems obvious, but saying no is easier said than done. My husband, who is one of the most giving and helpful people I know, agreed that we needed to focus more on our immediate family whether we had children or not. Instead of traveling on every professional trip or responding to everyone else’s needs, we consciously decided to invest in our marriage and our future. We worked closely with a specialist to plan our family’s future, and we are pleased with the result. Something that initially began as a source of great pain ended in a place of hope. Stay tuned for updates about our decisions!
Evaluate your professional goals and positioning.
At 19, I knew that I one day wanted to be a university president. After 10 years in my current job, I desired to pursue new opportunities- ones where I could apply my formal and informal leadership skills. Last year, I received offers from two universities interested in promoting me to Full Professor (the terminal tenure-track rank in the academy) and a call from a search firm wanting me to apply for a senior leadership position at a prominent university. All indicators pointed to my move to a new position. Was the timing convenient? Of course not. Death, however, is never convenient. Through the support of my close friends, family, students, and colleagues, I pushed past my personal tragedy and embraced the biggest, long-term picture about my future. I had to move on for my family whether I felt like doing so or not. Now, I really am excited and at peace about my future, and I look forward to allowing my experiences to inform my leadership philosophy as the Inaugural Department Chair in the Department of Engineering Education at The Ohio State University, effective January 2016.
After a loss, take time to reflect.
Instead of ignoring my pain, I asked myself almost weekly what I could take away from this experience. What I know is that we all go through bad experiences in our lives. The key, however, is not to wallow in the negativity. I recommend that people do what they need to do to heal, whether that involves counseling, praying, journaling, or some other therapeutic activity. My healing came from my faith and believing that one day, I would see my unborn baby (who I nicknamed “Bertram”) one day in heaven. I believe that I will be a mother one day, and I hope that this experience will encourage others who may have lost hope about something in their lives.
What I know more than anything is that I am a whole person- one who has experienced high highs and low lows. I am a survivor and a conqueror who uses my experiences to help others and to live the best life that I can live. Please don’t grieve for my loss, because 2016 is going to be epic!