Award-winning professor finds Latina academics are rarely featured in literature

May 18, 2020

Leslie D. Gonzales is a notable leader and advocate in higher education, recognized at Michigan State University and broader levels. She was recently celebrated with three distinct honors for her work in the field, and co-authored a study concerning the presentation of Latina scholars in academic journals.

Leslie Gonzales headshot

She and her co-author found Latina professors are present in few articles to begin with, and when they were present, they were often referenced in articles concerning minoritized or underrepresented faculty, and rarely ever framed as intellectuals.

“If you Google ‘Latinas,’ you don’t see Latina intellectuals,” said Gonzales, a first-generation college graduate and an affiliate faculty member in the Center for Gender in a Global Context and Chicano/Latinx Studies. “You usually get stereotypical images of who Latinas are, and what they do. The trope of poor, immigrant women, over-sexualized individuals. You rarely have pictures or articles describing Latina women as thought leaders.”

Gonzales and 2017 Student Affairs Administration program graduate Guadalupe Saldivar examined how Latina professors were portrayed in research articles in hopes to challenge the typical assumption and imagery often seen. The pair was inspired by Dr. Grisel Acosta’s earlier peer-reviewed work, which found little evidence that mainstream institutions, like the media, position Latinas as intellectuals.

“It’s important to think about how people and populations are framed in movies, TV shows, academic work. The way they are portrayed provides a particular set of parameters as to how these populations are thought to contribute to the world, what they’re capable of,” Gonzales continued. “When there are missing story lines—whether those stories are in movies, or in the academic scholarship that scholars produce, or when they are only depicted with stereotypes—then we shut down opportunities to imagine populations, such as Latinas, in other ways.”

The data

The collaboration between Gonzales and Saldivar, published in the Journal of Hispanic Higher Education in December 2019, examined nearly 9,000 social science and humanities articles, including 873 unique academic journals, from 2000-16.

Latina faculty were only featured in 55 papers, to some degree.

In 29 of those papers, Latinas were only mentioned within the contexts of studies or arguments concerning women, people of color or the Latinx community as a whole. When looking at more than a decade’s worth of articles, in only 26 were Latina professors centered as the sole unit of analysis.

Moreover, Latinas were not often portrayed as intellectuals, or as significant thought leaders, but more so as surviving academia, or barely making it.

Gonzales and Saldivar hope that their paper encourages other scholars to think about the kinds of questions they are asking about Latinas, and the roles or contributions Latinas are making to the academy.

Their paper—one of three commissioned papers for the annual American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education (AAHHE) conference—includes guidelines for researchers to consider, including a call to do more work on centering Latina professors. Gonzales and Saldivar also stress that researchers who are studying the presence, experience and contributions of Latina professors must attend to the diversity within the Latin or Hispanic population by paying attention to Afro-Latinas, issues around citizenship, language and class.

Accolades and achievements

Gonzales was named to the 2019 cohort of Top 25 LatinX in Michigan by the Hispanic/Latino Commission of Michigan and was one of 35 leaders named an Outstanding Woman in Higher Education by Diverse: Issues in Higher Education magazine in 2020.

Gonzales was also recently named the MSU College of Education’s Faculty Excellence Advocate by Dean Robert E. Floden. In this role, Gonzales will work with college search committees, department chairs and individual faculty to insure searches and faculty development are equitable and supportive.

“She brings good ideas and scholarly expertise, drawn from her research on university faculty careers,” Floden said. “One of her current projects, for example, focuses on faculty hiring and retention issues, a key part of [this position].”

The next steps for higher education

It is just one way Gonzales is taking a step in her continued commitment for an inclusive, supportive and equitable academic community.

“In the MSU College of Education, we are preparing future leaders, practitioner-scholars and academics to build more inclusive teaching and learning environments for public schools and university classrooms. We need to look at these same questions inside our own workplace, too. How are we being and how can we be more inclusive in our departments for faculty?” Gonzales said.

Though collecting and disaggregating data to capture how faculty careers and experiences differ across and within gender, race, faculty rank and appointment type can feel time-intensive (as well as “a little dizzying and maybe even messy”), it is important, Gonzales argues.

“We need to try to analyze not only how we are making decisions, but also the effects of decision-making in rigorous ways so that we identify and intervene on inequities, or remediate unearned advantages.”

An example, Gonzales says, is that research clearly has found faculty members tend to be hired from a very small portion of doctoral-granting universities in the U.S.

“These institutions are assumed to be of the highest quality,” she said, “but in fact, these institutions benefit from hundreds of years of wealth accumulation that is tied to racist histories and practices. Moreover, there are excellent doctoral students and future researchers being prepared at all sorts of institutions, including institutions that are not well-known.”

Gonzales has a suggestion for higher education to make the needed changes: “We have to make sure we are thinking and acting intentionally and inclusively to tap into the vast talents, especially historically minoritized talents, that are out there.”

This finding was also observed in 2016 by Grisel Y. Acosta, associate professor at Bronx Community College-CUNY. Read more of Acosta’s findings in “The Invisible Latina Intellectual.” Gonzales and Saldivar reference her 2016 peer-reviewed article in their research.

More from Gonzales

Gonzales is part of ASPIRE: A National Alliance for Inclusive and Diverse STEM Faculty. The initiative, funded by a $10 million grant from the National Science Foundation, is dedicated to better welcoming and preparing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) faculty who will teach, mentor and advice students in inclusive ways.

The alliance builds on various pilot projects funded by the NSF INCLUDES program, including one awarded to Gonzales in 2016.