Project Overview: Why Women's Research, Policy, and Advocacy Centers?

Why Women's Research, Policy and Advocacy Centers?

The kernel for this project addressing diversity in women’s research, policy and advocacy centers grew out of a project completed in 2006, entitled Leadership in Higher Education: A Path to Greater Racial and Gender Diversity. Funded by the Ford Foundation, that project studied the impact of leadership on diversity at eight institutions of higher education. Among its findings was an insight central to the rationale for this new project: that is, that women’s studies and research centers can and do serve as special sites for diversifying their communities and attracting, supporting, and advancing women of color and other underrepresented populations. 

"The success of this program is based upon several things. One is the fact that the Project Strategies were important, relevant and achievable in their design and thus attracted and retained the commitment of the CGO women of color Affiliates. They provided a concrete approach to change and concrete support to the new women of color Scholars.”

--Center for Gender in Organizations (CGO), Simmons School of Management, Boston, MA

With their basic focus on women – a historically disadvantaged group in higher education, although one which now frequently constitutes a majority of students on campus – women’s research and study centers have a deep theoretical commitment to diversity writ large. Their interdisciplinary approach encourages intellectual diversity, and they provide opportunities for cross-fertilization and collaboration across traditionally siloed academic departments. They often serve as sites for the advising and mentoring of students and faculty who do not find such support within their departments, and they can provide avenues for new leadership to arise. Because the centers often focus on issues beyond traditional academics, they provide opportunities for addressing questions of campus climate, community relations, and larger societal issues including access and social justice. Their research on pedagogy and curricula, and their collaborations with outside community groups, expand thinking about the substance of academic programs and learning, and invite new voices and perspectives into research and academic work.

 However, the fields of women’s studies and research are not themselves diverse, especially in terms of race and class, and therefore are not as effective as they might be in driving change within their institutions. Women’s research, policy, and advocacy centers face issues internal to their own history, structures, and make-up, as well as systemic challenges built into the larger institutions within which most of them dwell, that often prevent them from fulfilling their promise as sites for leadership and inclusion.   Historically disadvantaged women – African promise as sites for leadership and inclusion.   Historically disadvantaged women – African Americans, Latinas/Chicanas, and American Indians – are often critically under-represented, and their vision, energies, commitments, and concerns are often not reflected in the centers’ work.
This void affects the quality and relevance of the centers’ work, their ability to impact their larger communities, and ultimately their own futures.  In fact, leadership and succession planning in women’s studies and research has often resulted neither in diversity at the top, nor in the pipeline, thus posing a challenge to the centers’ own futures as well as to their capacity to make meaningful contributions to the field and confront major inequities and policy failures in our society at large. Addressing this challenge is crucial to the future sustainability and effectiveness of the women’s research community.

In order to address the need to bring more women of color into leadership positions in women’s scholarship, advocacy and research, the Council undertook a two-year program to develop successful pilot programs that could be used as models by other centers to increase their diversity at all levels. Thanks to Ford Foundation funding, the Council was able to award 6 grants from among 15 applicants: 5 grants of $8,000 which were matched by the centers’ home institutions to plan and implement a program to encourage women of color within their centers; and one $2,000 grant to support an institutional self-analysis of the extent of diversity in the center as well as barriers to and possible strategies for change.

Simultaneously, the Council undertook an analysis of its own diversity and took steps to increase the number of people from under-represented populations on its board and staff, and to increase the number of centers in its network that focus on issues of particular concern to those populations. It also ensured that the entire network of 110 centers which are members of the Council had opportunities to reflect on their own degree of inclusiveness and diversity, and to participate in discussions with experts and representatives from the 6 participating centers.  


 As a first step in the project, an expert advisory committee that included experts on diversity issues, institutional change, and women’s research and advocacy, was convened, under the leadership of Beverly Guy-Sheftall. The Committee was charged with overseeing the Request for Proposals and the awarding of the grants, serving as mentors and role models for project participants, and helping to ensure that the strategies employed and lessons learned were shared with appropriate constituents.