Women of Color in Career Services: Research Findings and Recommendations for Practitioners

Category: Career Resources

Women of color (WOC) represent the fastest growing segment of the U.S. workforce (Catalyst, 2018). Additional research from Catalyst (2018) and recent articles from USA Today (2017) and Forbes (2015) discuss the employment landscape and challenges for WOC. Yet, little research has addressed the professional aspirations and challenges of WOC in higher education, let alone career services. According to statistics that NACE collected in a recent study, WOC are the least likely to attain senior leadership roles compared to white men and women, and men of color.

These findings prompted us to investigate the barriers impacting career advancement for WOC in career services, especially since their presence is expected to increase within the field. We spearheaded a study interviewing 15 WOC staff and 21 senior administrators within career services across 30 U.S. institutions. A majority of the participants represented centralized career services offices at four-year institutions, with relatively equal representation from private and public institutions. In addition to collecting demographic information (e.g., gender, ethnicity), respondents shared their work history and challenges they experienced throughout their career. Participants were also asked to give their perceptions on issues impacting WOC in the workplace and to provide suggestions on how the career services field could offer better support.

From these discussions, three key findings emerged to bring greater insight to this topic:

  1. WOC staff in career services experience similar challenges to WOC in other industries. Implicit/explicit bias, stereotyping, and tokenism were frequently reported throughout the study, just as these practices have been reported by WOC in other fields by various sources and articles. These negative experiences left lasting impressions on WOC staff within career services resulting in self-image concerns, including imposter syndrome. Some felt the need to minimize their identities to be accepted by colleagues and managers, while questioning their self-efficacy within the workplace.
  2. WOC staff report having many professional strengths beneficial to senior roles within career services. Strong management skills, along with being strategic, inclusive, passionate and relational, were common attributes cited during the interviews. Additionally, having a strong work ethic stood out as one of their greatest characteristics. Yet, WOC believed the latter quality was commonly overlooked by colleagues.
  3. There is a disparity between the obstacles white administrators faced with advancing their careers, compared to people of color (POC) in senior administrator positions.   

One-third of the senior administrators interviewed identified as white/Caucasian. When asked about the challenges they experienced with career advancement, many reported that the application process was their greatest hurdle. Concerns over educational requirements, sufficient professional experience, and position availability delayed their ascension to senior level roles. This discovery demonstrated a stark contrast from POC who had to face stereotyping and imposter syndrome, along with navigating application requirements.

With these findings revealed, it is important to address, “What can the career services field do to better support WOC in their professional ambitions?” Below are recommendations to assist staff, administrators, and institutions with creating a more inclusive space for WOC to succeed in their vocational goals:

  1. Provide encouragement and professional support regarding career aspirations. Strive to understand the experiences, goals, and apprehensions of WOC. Verbally affirm their strengths by articulating how they have been an asset to the work of the office, institution, and field. Additionally, support opportunities for WOC to undertake additional projects or responsibilities within or outside the office to enhance their skills. Permitting WOC to have an outlet to grow their skills and experiences shows that you have confidence in their abilities to make a meaningful impact in the workplace.
  2. Establish a mentorship ecosystem. Connect WOC to experienced leaders within higher education who can provide greater exposure and knowledge of the administrative landscape, and strengthen the mentee’s professional network. Many WOC staff from the study reported having difficulty in finding professional mentors on their own. Therefore, it is essential that experienced leaders take an active role in introducing WOC to colleagues within the field so they become more informed, visible, and connected as they pursue advancement opportunities.
  3. Actively engage in dismantling systemic barriers within career services to create pathways for career advancement. Vocalize opposition to policies and practices that limit inclusion and equity for WOC within the workplace. Evaluate and enhance the recruitment of WOC into the career services field and into senior roles.

Supporting WOC will be an ongoing conversation as the U.S. workforce becomes more diverse. With the knowledge, passion, and purpose to initiate change, we are confident that the career services profession can be a leading force in creating opportunities for WOC to thrive professionally and shine brightly within the field.


Guynn, J. (2017, April 27). Here’s Why Women, Blacks and Hispanics are Leaving Tech. USA Today. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/news/2017/04/27/toxic-workplaces-technology-women-minorities-retention/100977038/

Quick Take: Women of Color in the United States (2018). Retrieved from https://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/women-color-united-states-0

Travis, D.J., & Thorpe-Moscon, J. (2018). Day-to-day Experiences of Emotional Tax Among Women and Men of Color in the Workplace. Retrieved from https://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/day-day-experiences-emotional-tax-among-women-and-men-color-workplace

Tulshyan, R. (2015, Feb. 10). Speaking Up as a Woman of Color at Work. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/ruchikatulshyan/2015/02/10/speaking-up-as-a-woman-of-color-at-work/#55530dbe2ea3

Larry Jackson
Larry Jackson
Assistant Director for Student Career Advising, Career Advancement, Northwestern University
Espie Santiago
Espie Santiago
Director of Employer Relationships, CollegeNET

Larry Jackson, Assistant Director for Student Career Advising, Career Advancement, Northwestern University
Espie Santiago, Director of Employer Relationships, CollegeNET - GUEST BLOGGER

Larry Jackson is a Career Adviser at Northwestern Career Advancement. Throughout his time at Northwestern, Larry has contributed to numerous initiatives on-campus to create inclusive spaces for staff and students within different affinity groups. Larry is actively involved in the National Association of Colleges & Employers (NACE) and the Hire Big 10+ Consortium through leadership positions and committee work. Larry is also a NACE/Spelman Johnson Rising Star Award Winner, and has presented at Midwest ACE and NASPA regional and national conferences.

Espie Santiago is passionate about developing an inclusive leadership pipeline for the career services profession. After 15 years in career education at Stanford University, she joined CollegeNET as Director of Employer Relationships for StandOut®, a video recruitment platform. At Stanford, Espie was Assistant Dean of Career Ventures, overseeing recruiting programs, and Assistant Dean of Career Communities, leading career coaches. She served as NACE 2016-2017 Inclusion Awareness Committee co-chair. Her presentations include, “Women of Color in Career Services - Creating Pathways for Career Advancement” (Midwest ACE 2018), and “Navigating the Culture of Whiteness & Patriarchy: Women of Color in Higher Education Leadership” (NASPA: 2018).