Interviewee: Lois Black
Interviewer: Sister Marie Heyda
Date: November 20, 1977
Lois Black, a psychologist and researcher from Syracuse, New York, attended the IWY Conference as an observer. She was the Director of Affirmative Action at Syracuse University and the university supported her attendance. Interview includes discussion of: her view that affirmative action made a significant difference in the hiring of female faculty, though they were not getting tenured or promoted at the same rate as men; Black’s belief that women’s activism was held against them in the tenure process; and Black’s opinion that her affirmative action colleagues and other administrators were not being bold enough in the defense of affirmative action.
Lois Black: I’m Lois Black. I’m from Syracuse, New York. I am a psychologist and researcher connected with Upstate Medical Center, but my principal position and the reason I’m here is because I’m director of affirmative action at Syracuse University and the university has seen fit to let me come because this is a very important event for all women. And among the things that I do as a director of affirmative action is to try to make some of the programs that are being given a little push inside these walls really work, and it’s tremendously important to what we do for the country to realize as a whole that there is wide public support, particularly among women.
I think one of the speakers said it so well, that it seems as though we are expected to agree with each, that we cannot tolerate controversy and that 50 percent is not really half the people, and the 55 percent isn’t really a majority because no one is going to respond to us until we all speak with one voice. And that’s clearly ridiculous. We have a substantial majority, judging by the voting that’s going on, and I’m delighted to see that among the things that were amended was the strengthening of the disabled women legislation. And I think that’s very important, because we in universities and places where education takes place have to be responsive to those women who are most handicapped. And it’s clear to me that our educational facilities have been most negligent with respect to minority women, older women, disabled women, and many of the things that are spoken to by the plan will indeed help us.
Marie Heyda: I’m interested in the fact that you are an official of affirmative action. I am in a college, too, and I find affirmative action is rather neglected. What has been your experience at Syracuse, or from what you know about other universities?
LB: My experience is that it’s made a tremendous difference in the way in which we hire faculty, but that was only a first step and unfortunately we aren’t seeing women being promoted, tenured, put into positions of administrative responsibility nearly fast enough. And this is particularly true of large research universities in which the presumption is that men get the grants and that men will be the people of great distinction, and while we might be good for teaching and we might be good for a lot of other things, that somehow we cannot occupy the positions of significant leadership.
MH: Well now, can you really remedy that trend a bit? Are you able to put your weight –?
LB: We are beginning to get an opportunity to at least comment on the processes whereby promotions and senior appointments are made. We do not have as a matter of law, nor as a matter of practice direct authority over the fundamental decision-making processes that exist in universities, but our influence is felt more and more. We have a voice without a vote in significant committee decisions.
MH: Which as they say this tenure problem, a big thing now, that women are just not getting tenure.
LB: Well, we are seeing that and our concern is, particularly with those women who came in under that first wave of enthusiasm about 1972 and suddenly their very activism is being held against them. And of course no one would say that is the case, but it appears as though those women who have been concerned at the status of women are those who are having the hardest time establishing their reputations and being promoted.
MH: Because they’re not the docile woman that is willing to get the coffee ready for the men.
LB: I know, they don’t appear quite collegial enough, and that’s certainly a problem we have is being taken seriously. Everyone admits women are bright enough but we’re not really seen as serious competitors and scholars, and that’s something I think will change as you watch through the years.
MH: Have you noticed anything that you would advise women to do to try to correct this image, or the stereotype? As a psychologist, you might see women doing things that are hurting themselves.
LB: I think sometimes just to assume that it doesn’t exist. I think sometimes you have to almost be blind to what has been expected of you, because if you do indeed fulfill the stereotypes that people have of you, you are forever defeating yourself. And that’s the lovely thing about young people and children who grow up without those senses of stereotypes is they behave differently. That’s where it begins. If you really can project some belief in yourself, other people are carried along. But defensiveness is defeating.
MH: And then you allow the men to not lose face. I think that’s important. Don’t make them lose face, but just go ahead.
LB: I think there’s room enough for both of us. I hope so.
MH: Is there any particular thing about the conference? Did you come because you wanted to?
LB: I came because I wanted to come as an observer. I wanted to see if this was a place where the kinds of things that I think are needed to support affirmative action are happening, because I don’t find my professional colleagues in affirmative action are nearly bold enough. And the most powerful I have of that is that our last national convention of the American Affirmative Action Association, we could not get a vote to pass not to meet in states where ERA had not been passed. And at that point I said obviously there’s division in the ranks. How can we have affirmative action if our minorities and our women are working against each other and are afraid to take so obvious a stand, when every other professional organization I belong to that has no connection with affirmative action has agreed to do that? The psychologists, the Society for Research in Child Development are two organizations I belong to that have taken that kind of action, and we must.
MH: Have you felt much discrimination in your own career, or any discrimination?
LB: Oh yes, very much so, from aspirations to change my career from the childhood intention of being a physician to being a psychologist, and from –
MH: Why did you change? Did you find it impossible?
LB: Indeed I did, financially and in every other way impossible to go to medical school. I went to college in the fifties and I completed pre med and I had no money, and I was a woman, and it just did not look doable and I became very turned off to the kind of people that were competing for medical school and just gave up at that point and decided I would do something I could finance.
MH: I suppose there were grants, but they went to the men students.
LB: Well, I did a typically womanly thing. I went and taught school for a while and then I said that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I’ll do get a PhD. But mostly I felt the discrimination in employment. I did not feel anything except the subtle pressure to be something other than what I wanted to be in the education institutions I attended. But when I went to look for a job, I went through graduate school, married, I had my first two children while a graduate student, and when I wanted to work that was where it began. And that’s one of the reasons I’m in affirmative action. I’ve been under employed and inappropriately employed for most of my professional life.
MH: I suppose the insinuation is why don’t you stay home and raise your two children?
LB: Well, it’s four now and I stayed home enough, quite adequately I think, but I never did stop working and I never did stop trying, and I found it difficult. Because it’s hard to get taken seriously if you’re a married woman with small children, and there were no daycare centers and it was costly to work. But well worth it every step of the way, and I think my sons are better for it.
MH: So you’re an example of the woman who can get married and also have a career.
End of Interview