Lakshmi Balachandra is a tenured professor of entrepreneurship at Babson College who also was a member of the Select Board in Needham. Here, she talks about being discounted by students, college leadership, and town residents — as told to Globe reporter Katie Johnston. Part of Inequality at Work, an occasional series of personal essays by people of color working in the Boston area.
Teaching was a huge challenge last year. Everyone was frustrated by the inability to meet in person and the difficulties of communicating online. And the usual gender and race bias from students made it even tougher.
I had a white male teaching partner for my Foundations of Management and Entrepreneurship class, who I had grown to adore. He was brand-new to teaching and didn’t know how the highly experiential course worked, but he was upfront with students: ‘I’m new, but Lakshmi’s been teaching this forever.” His point was, basically, I’m the expert.
During one of our few hybrid classes — I was full-time remote because my family helps my parents, but my teaching partner was there in person — he created a fun team exercise: Use five words, drawn at random, and come up with something creative. It was hard to get students to do much of anything last year, but there was one team that got “TikTok” as a word, and they came back with a PowerPoint presentation. It was so mundane, the opposite of creative. So I said: “I’m surprised you didn’t make a TikTok.” My teaching partner, who was leading the class, was far more critical.
They were angry with our comments. But they stayed after class to complain to him about me. They said, “We really don’t like the way Prof. B talks to us. She’s the reason we have no motivation. Her feedback has always been negative.” He immediately stopped them and said, “Whatever you say about her applies to me.”
My co-teacher called me and was so upset. He said, “It couldn’t have been more ridiculous, more explicit, just blaming the brown woman for their problems.” You have to walk this tightrope as a woman, but particularly as a brown woman. No matter what I say, students interpret it as being mean or harsh, whereas they see my white male co-teacher’s words as helpful.
I think there were two things happening in that class. The students already have the “college kids think they know everything bias,” and they really don’t want to be challenged by a woman of color.
With Indian women, there’s this expectation that we’re subservient and quiet and obedient. But I’m a pretty straight shooter. I don’t mince words. I think it usually isn’t a problem because I try not to say things in an angry tone. But also feel people are surprised at how outspoken I am because it goes against their expectations of Indian women.
These things matter. Colleges use student opinion surveys for tenure and promotion. We put them on pause last year because there’s been more awareness about how biased they are. Research shows that we have a white male norm in a lot of fields, including academia. And if you aren’t a person that fits that stereotype, you get judged more harshly. This also gets to the whole monetization of higher ed, making it about pleasing the “customer” as opposed to the education of the individual. And the customers are falling into these biases they can’t help, in a lot of ways.
I know I’m a good teacher. I’ve taught at Harvard Business School and MIT, with great reviews. Then I came to Babson and I started getting mediocre, even bad reviews. I’ve become acutely aware of how students perceive me when I walk into a room, compared to the white men next to me.
Growing up, I was the only Indian girl in Needham. When you grow up being the “only,” you want to fit in. I felt the need to squelch differences as opposed to celebrating them. Indian parents also put a lot of pressure on their kids. You have to be nice. Anything you do that goes wrong, it’s assumed to be your fault. And I carry that with me to this day.
I’m a negotiation expert. I’ve taught negotiation to executives around the world. But I try not to do it myself. Research has shown women and minorities are at an immediate disadvantage in negotiations. Instead, I literally send in my white husband. Why should I bother when he can walk in the door and get a better price? In many situations, I say to myself: “What would a white guy do?” It’s empowering — and depressing.
Last year, I was asked to take over course curriculum duties for a white male lecturer — an ex-private equity guy, not an academic, who was serving as the course coordinator. Course coordinators serve as the point person for professors teaching sections of big classes, and they are released from teaching a course as compensation. Because of COVID, the course needed to be redesigned to go online, but this coordinator didn’t have experience with curriculum development. I was already on the course design committee and became the de facto coordinator. College leadership asked me to take over, unofficially, and I said I would, if the current coordinator picked up my class and I got the title. Instead, leadership gave me an ultimatum: Do the extra work without compensation or leave the committee. So I left. I think there was no way the brown woman could replace the white guy. We’re too worried about the white male ego, and we are worse for it.
Through my research on venture capital investment decisions, I have found that diversity in decision-making roles is essential for making the best choices. And I started thinking about the importance of broader representation in town government. I got really angry that my town decided to approve buying more guns for the police force in the wake of the George Floyd movement. They also wrongly detained a Black man for shoplifting, and now there’s a civil rights lawsuit. I don’t think there was enough indignation about these things because the town government was all white.
So I decided to run for the town’s Select Board. Marcus Nelson, a Black man, also was running, and we won the two open seats in April. We are the first people of color ever elected in a town established in 1711.
It’s been a challenge because people fear change. From day one, the old guard on the board has been difficult, so demeaning, so belittling, cutting me off when I speak. I started posting weekly Sunday updates on the town Facebook page with my perspective on decisions being made, and I made the mistake of reading the horrible comments about how “divisive” and “arrogant” I am.
I just started my sabbatical year as a fellow at the National Science Foundation and just learned it’s a conflict of interest for fellowship winners to serve in executive branch roles. So I have to step down from the Select Board. I’m disappointed, but also relieved.
I know I’m letting down my constituents. But I’m sick of carrying this emotional labor. It’s been very emotionally taxing. Anything I say is challenged.
Still, this is not the Needham I grew up in. We just had an India Day celebration, and there were well over 100 people there. There’s a whole bunch of Indian and half-Indian kids in the schools; my kids are not “the only.” It shows you where the community is, that it would elect an Indian-American woman. And that gives me hope.
Follow Lakshmi Balachandra on Twitter @proflb.