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Growing up in a small New England town, I had a friend whose mother, a professor who taught at a private, religious college in the Berkshires, abruptly began dying her hair ash-brown when she was applying for tenure. I was bewildered and asked my friend, why? I thought gray hair was a sign of wisdom—a crown of splendor1—so why wouldn’t she want to appear more senior than junior for the promotion and tenure committee? Didn’t gray hair signal seniority, a desirable trait for a professor, a literal éminence grise? My friend matter-of-factly explained a simple paradox in academia: women should appear seasoned but not too old; it would put off the committee.

If my friend’s mother looked “too young,” on the other hand, she could encounter bias due to apparent youthfulness, an indicator of inexperience (“she looks too young to be tenured”). If she looked “too old,” she could face misperceptions about her scholarly productivity or pedagogy (“she’s irrelevant and has no more research agenda”). The upshot of the tale is, she was awarded tenure—her teaching was stellar, there was the scholarly monograph, etc.—and she let her natural hair color return.   

On hindsight, I fully understand how my friend’s mother responded to the stereotype threat of institutionalized sexism and ageism. She detected bias or discrimination in the practices of the promotion and tenure committee where a woman’s age, appearance, or “looks” could negatively impact her professional goals.

Another girlhood acquaintance, who was good friends with my little sister, had parents who were both tenured academics—they held endowed chairs with distinguished titles at their respective universities. My sister told me how she ate macaroni and cheese with extra cheese, which they made by themselves at her friend’s house—a forbidden act in our kitchen; we dabbled in “chemistry cooking” under careful supervision.  

My sister’s friend was a gifted musician who played in wind and string ensembles. At the final performance of her senior year, her mother and father were mysteriously absent—neither one could attend the concert. This was not out of the norm, but our friend couldn’t conceal the tears streaming down her face as she lingered after the performance. We felt terrible and didn’t know what to say. What was this mythical work of professors, I wondered, which detained them from celebrating their daughter’s accomplishments? Weren’t academics afforded more flexible hours with summers off for research—and opportunities to spend time with their families?   

Occasionally, there arose a mystical word which sounded like Sabbath but took up a full season of Sundays and more—a sabbatical—which simply meant her reticent father would be locked up in the study for hours when he wasn’t traveling abroad at conferences. I can’t recall whether her mother ever had a sabbatical. When I first met her in person, this mother pontificated in long sentences, semi-colons and all—rather unlike the other mothers I knew. I listened in awe.

As an undergraduate, I had no idea that a meandering path through the biological sciences, music, writing, and literature would eventually lead to academic administration: my social imprinting as a second-generation Taiwanese daughter and a Presbyterian did not lead to a vision of a humanities professor or administrator, but rather, an engineer or medical health professional. I did not know then, as I do now, about the vocations and multilinear pathways available to students in the humanities. My college pastor and professor-mentors, including a counselor who studied with Howard Gardner at the Harvard School of Graduate Education, encouraged me to pursue English literature and writing,. The counselor loaned me a copy of Creating Minds and affirmed the gift of creativity in my life as a realm to explore rather than to suppress.2

In southern California, I served as the first Asian American woman to chair the English department on a campus—I was in my thirties, youthful. I subsequently served as the first Asian American senior administrator at my next campus. I was not the first woman in those positions (I was the second), yet the racial milestone (a first) was unremarked upon. My hire was a symptom of shifts in leadership style—more collaborative and governance-oriented—along with demographic trends, although not necessarily changes in the campus climate. I am also the first in my present role as a provost on a campus with an evangelical ethos.

My own academic journey is rife with beauty and paradox. As I look over my past two decades in higher education, I find myself nettled by memories of sanctimonious activism by colleagues on topics of race or gender when they had needled my ego with microaggressions in a meeting mere minutes prior, disrupting my process improvement proposals—thereby demonstrating the need for a good process—or offloading tedious projects beyond my purview, then taking credit for success. I felt even more grieved when this behavior was never curtailed or remedied, usually because supervisors failed to hold their direct reports accountable out of fear or apathy enmeshed with a self-protective mindset.

Originally a devotional poet by avocation, I would rather meditate on a psalm than get into a verbal firefight—yet I also resist underlying assumptions that presume faculty who bear my racial features and female phenotype are all the same while the organization negotiates culture shifts towards embracing diversity. We are not carbon-copies of each other; we aren’t shiny bottles of sriracha to scoop off the shelves of the job market.

Subject to negative attitudes or deemed “not likable” if we don’t fit a stereotype, marginalized faculty may feel shunned or excluded from informal grapevines of information or blocked from access to influential decision-making processes, in policy or process. We might find ourselves with less desirable project assignments and low visibility, serving as invisible couriers of conflicting directives crafted by those in authority. Institutional effectiveness, in turn, is hindered by the double-edged sword of weaponized incompetence in the hands of homogeneous power.

Although I live under a proverbial rock and rarely spend time streaming movies or television shows, out of curiosity I watched the trailer for The Chair featuring the first woman of color English department chair, Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh), at the fictional Pembroke University.3 I experienced a frisson of shocked recognition at the montage of clips, a panoply of frightfully familiar scenes—turf wars and culture wars, power play, and intradepartmental damage no one has cleaned up until the “lady chair” assumes the head of the table—I felt a knot in my stomach. I never thought this would be the type of drama that audiences would flock to see played out on Netflix. It’s said that humor is a form of recognition—yet I could not laugh at these scenes, altogether too realistic to be comical.

It takes courage to be a mother and an academic. It also takes wisdom to understand why not all women aspire to be mothers or are mothers. I love finding ways to create space for the flourishing of women, mothers, and marginalized employees in the workplace: diversity strategic planning, mentoring junior faculty, designating a private nursing room for adjunct instructors with infants, adjusting schedules so parents can attend games and performances, and dispelling myths around child-rearing and parental leave. To date, this is a rewarding portion of my academic journey as an administrator.

Now these issues are compounded during the coronavirus pandemic, when many parents work remotely while their young children are at home, attending school online. Now that we are returning to work in person, childcare is once again a must. The intersecting biases around race and gender in conjunction with motherhood are heightened during pregnancy when colleagues may notice a change in physical appearance or mobility, leading to inappropriate remarks about fertility in the pandemic. Or perhaps there are small children at home who are too young for vaccination. In class, what if a student resists an indoor face-covering mandate, jeopardizing the health of an instructor? The questions and risks are numerous. The inclusion of diverse perspectives and lines of inquiry will improve our decision-making and steer us away from eclipsed conclusions in this season of urgency.

Dr. Todd Ream of Taylor University invited me to curate a series of essays in dialogue with Power Women: Stories of Motherhood, Faith, and the Academy, published by IVP Academic this fall.4 This book is co-edited by criminal justice professor Dr. Deshonna Collier-Goubil alongside sociologist and social media influencer Dr. Nancy Yuen. Power Womenpresents a rich compendium of women, motherhood, and the Christian academy, addressing many issues I’ve raised in this essay and more. The book also includes discussion and reflection questions so that readers may use them to create further space by promoting thoughtful conversation on key topics relevant to mothers in academia.

I should note that this series of posts hosted by The Christian Scholar’s Review includes the voices of mothers in academia as well as those of single women and single mothers at various stages of their academic life cycle. I’ve also included perspectives from husbands and fathers on the topic of motherhood, parenting, and the Christian academy; these discussions are also in dialogue with doctrinal beliefs and values shaping the roles of women in ecclesial contexts and larger questions of governance by women clergy and laity in ministry.

My hope is that women and marginalized faculty will benefit from more visibility, inclusion, and equitable access. For senior administrators, this series could motivate us to consider those policies and practices that would lead to constructive interventions that enhance the flourishing of all our faculty. For these reasons and more, I’ve invited this gathering of voices from a variety of evangelical perspective and traditions to share their stories and reflections in dialogue with Power Women.


  1. Proverbs 16:31
  2. Gardner, Howard. Creating Minds. New York: Basic Books, 1993.
  3. The Chair. Created by Amanda Peet and Annie Wyman. Netflix TV Series, 2021.
  4. Nancy Yuen and Deshonna Collier-Goubil, eds., Power Women: Stories of Motherhood, Faith, and the Academy (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2021).

Karen Lee

Karen Lee is a poet and provost at Wheaton College, Illinois. Her recent books are Rose is a Verb: Neo-Georgics (2021) and The Maze of Transparencies (2019).