Leadership for social change, career readiness, both, or neither?

Within the past year, our department has undergone a transition with a newly merged team for the purpose of focusing our efforts on developing student leaders who are prepared to tackle society’s challenges as well as preparing them for the workforce. While this agenda itself presents as a neoliberal project (an investigation deserving of its own blog post), through this transition I have reflected on how this change has shaped our new leadership and career education professional team. This often leaves me wondering what impact we are having on addressing the material experiences students of color as they encounter white supremacy in the employment industry.

In an effort to explore how I can better advocate for students and provide them with the information they need to be empowered in their own job search, I turned to one of the online resources we refer students to use in this process- glassdoor.com. Within this website they have provided some resources which can be helpful for practitioners such as myself as well as for the students we work with each day as they navigate their career trajectory. Yet even within these tools are some themes of CRT which we have explored in our course which I will elaborate on throughout this post.

Applying a CRT Framework to the Job Search and Hiring Process

When I looked to glassdoor.com one of the first articles which drew my attention was regarding the pay gap between genders. I have engaged in conversations with students regarding the gender pay gap, which is often reduced to a comparison of white men to white women. We know that this approach fails to consider how those who experience pay discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, ability, citizenship, and other social locations influences the pay gap between white men and all those who do not identify as such. Yet even when I looked to research on the pay gap I found explain-aways from Pew Research Center regarding “unmeasurable factors” such as discrimination as well as individual behaviors regarding risk aversion and negotiation among women and people of color (Patten, 2016).

By offering an explanation such as “learn how to negotiate like White men do” serves to direct conversations about individual circumstances which divert the attention from white supremacy in the workplace is falling into the liberalism trap. Liberalism can have some benefits as well as drawbacks, as Crenshaw (1988) reminds us that liberalism has the “transformative potential” of combating the oppression and exclusion specifically in regards to Civil Rights. An example of this would be affirmative action and hiring policies designed to protect marginalized peoples from discrimination. At the same time, liberalism focuses on the individual merits and behaviors of a person, such as through explanations such as, “well if you negotiated for a higher pay you would have one” or, “well if you just worked harder” to allow white supremacy to continue to maintain itself in the workplace while distorting the realities faced by people of color (Crenshaw, 1988). This trap, which is a comfortable one to approach from an educational perspective, such as a coaching scenario framed around “let’s pretend you got an offer, what do you do?”, fails to acknowledge the larger systemic mechanisms in place which remain unchallenged, such as a moment like “let’s talk about this company’s hiring process which is inherently oppressive and discriminatory”.

The second problem with expecting the change to happen if people just asked for more money in the process is it leaves no responsibility or accountability on the employer to examine the role it plays in maintaining these material injustices regarding inequitable compensation and career mobility. Questions are left unanswered, such as to whose benefit does it serve to maintain people of color at a lower pay? How are other factors, such as a hostile work environment and colorblindness functioning in the workplace? Derrick Bell (1992) reminds us that racism is not just individual prejudices and discrimination but a lived reality, embedded in American life, which has shaped various institutions throughout history to influence how we enact a racial hierarchy. It is not just that your employer is racist, but in fact that the western employee marketplace was built on an ideological foundation grounded in white supremacy at the expense of people of color.

Interest convergence presents itself as an opportunity to entice employers to increase the pay and career trajectory for people of color. Bell (1980) describes interest convergence as the process in which racial equality can only happen when it convergences with the interests of the White elite. Employee retention is considered a cost-savings means, so focusing on strategies such as a clear path for promotion and a decent salary may create a win-win interest convergence situation. Another hopeful resource glassdoor.com offers is for employers to analyze the gender pay gap (which is a helpful first move to recognize that one exists) so HR representatives can use this tool to conduct a gender pay audit (Chamberlain, 2017). However, there is something left to be desired beyond just “sharing your results with employees” but the responsibility for employers to examine 1) what practices are in place to make this happen in the first place and 2) how are you going to change salaries and policies so this doesn’t continue to be a problem in the future? Coupling these resources to shed light in racist practices is a great start, but they may only be enacted if we exercise them from an interest convergence perspective.

Applying the Tenets of CRT in Career Education

Which circles back to my own experience, with students who despite all of the
“checkboxes” they have marked off on their leadership and extracurricular transcripts and resumes, struggle to not only find a job but one that pays a living wage. As graduation nears for many students, the panic around the question “what are your plans after graduation?” is beginning to settle into the office. What opportunities exist within our sphere of influence to create a more equitable outcome for students?

First I think we need to reflect on how we enact liberal ideals, colorblindness, and other destructive tendencies when working with students of color. Asking ourselves about our own barriers in Career Services such as who is represented, who are we working with as well as who are we leaving out, and how are we shifting our focus from transactional services for students to empowering students by listening to what they need must be happening more often. We could be more successful with our interactions and opportunities we provide to students if we first address our own biases and discriminatory career advising strategies to start.

In addition, we could be thinking creatively about how we collaborate with alumni and employers. An example of this could be inviting alumni back to campus to share with students about workplace issues in order to create space for counterstorytelling in the hiring process. Creating this space be a valuable resource for students of color to hear from people who have been in their position before, as Delgado (1989)  emphasizes the liberatory function of storytelling for communities of color. Perhaps another audience could include employers from various agencies to listen to the real impact such hiring practices and workplace dynamics has on those who are impacted by them. Delgado (1989) describes narrative and storytelling as a means to bring to life how racism has impacted people of color, and by listening to understand, those in power (see- recruiters and hiring managers) have the opportunity to consider other’s perspectives regarding racism in the workplace. Career Services has a responsibility to its various stakeholders, which include students, but cannot function without the involvement of students looking for career advice and placement. This avenue for connecting and empowering students with alumni who have been through similar experiences could be a great opportunity to foster community and connections.

Ultimately, I exist within the tensions of “preparing future leaders to make a difference”, our espoused motto, and “preparing future leaders for the workforce”, the motto our stakeholders expect us to practice. While I will continue to encourage students to disrupt the system, I also have a responsibility to empower them to successfully navigate the barriers which exist in their journey throughout their career. If their goal is employment after graduation, then that is my goal for them as well, while also challenging my new team to consider ways we can disrupt the status quo to address the realities students are facing after college to help make this goal a reality.


Chamberlain, A. (2017 April 4). “How to analyze your gender pay gap” An employer’s guide”. Retrieved 26 March 2017 from https://www.glassdoor.com/research/studies/how-to-analyze-gender-pay-gap-employers-guide/

Crenshaw, K. W. (1988) Race, reform, and retrenchment: Transformation and legitimation in antidiscrimination law. Harvard Law Review, 101 (7), 1331-1387.

Bell, D.A. (1980). Brown v. Board and the interest-convergence dilemma. Harvard Law Review, 93 (3), pp. 518-533.

Bell, D.A. (1992). Racial realism. Connecticut Law Review, 24(2), 363-380.

Delgado, R. (1989). Storytelling for oppositionists and others: A plea for narrative. Michigan Law Review, 87, 2411-2441.

Patten, E. (1 July 2016). “Racial, gender wage gaps persist in U.S. despite some progress”. Pew Research Center, Retrieved 26 March 2017 from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/07/01/racial-gender-wage-gaps-persist-in-u-s-despite-some-progress/


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