Acknowledgment: Thanks to everyone who talked to me about this both on twitter and in person. Please join in the discussion – I’d love to hear thoughts on this.

We think a lot about mentoring here. About who we want to be, what we need, how to GTFO of a toxic situation (and help others in similar boat). I’ve been thinking about the role of my female mentors, and about my role in mentoring students and trainees.

There is a question I get asked with some regularity, it is “Why did you do your PhD and post-doc with women mentors? Was that on purpose?” The answer to the first question is “because they were doing the science I wanted to do” and to the second “yes, it was very much on purpose that I worked with people who were doing the science I wanted to do”. I usually answer that way, because I’m obstinate and I intensely dislike the question that is actually being asked – did I choose to work with women because I am a woman?

I have been asked the same question by my undergrad mentor – without whom I wouldn’t be where I am now. He asked because he wanted to know if his trainees, most of whom were women, were missing out on something with a male mentor. Coming from him, that question was surprising because he is a phenomenal mentor. He has ongoing conversations with people about what they want, he finds, and provides strong encouragement, for opportunities that feel just a little out of reach both in career and in science, and has supported students in finding careers both in academia and out in the “real” world.

From this, the question of whether female and male mentors fill different roles, stuck in my head. Not just about one’s immediate advisors, but about my village, my mentors in the broadest sense of the term.

Fast forward to last year, when I was provided with a mentoring committee in my new job. In general our department tries to assign senior faculty in our general field. In addition, they like to make sure that there is at least one woman on the committee for female assistant profs. Ensuring that women have access to female mentors seems like a good thing to do, and it’s certainly a central point of Women in Science organizations, but I started wondering what is it that female mentors are more likely to provide, over and above a role model? Is it just a matter of identifying with “someone like me” (which is valuable in it’s own rite)? What is it that I preferentially seek out advice from women on? And why is this seen as more valuable for women than men?

So I did what I often do these days when I have a question – I asked twitter*. Once we got past “neither men or women better mentors! It is more personality dependent!”** (a statement with which I wholeheartedly agree, but isn’t the question here), some patterns started to emerge about what kind of information people are more likely to ask – or more likely to receive – from the women they consider mentors compared with the men.

Top of the list was dealing with gender politics. Whether casual sexism from students (see Teaching Naked), or improper questions (“Do you/are you planning to have kids?”) at interviews, gender related politics and awkward situations were definitely “things I specifically ask my female mentors/colleagues” (and if you want to know why we prefer to talk with women, scan through the comments at the Teaching Naked post looking at the general responses from men compared with women). How to dress for interviews or conferences was also something that many people said they’d be more likely to ask a woman.

Second on the list was more surprising. Both men and women felt that their female mentors gave broader career advice, more encompassing of factors outside science or academia, including relationships, family, and more about the process and politics of being an academic, than men. This was described in several ways, including that women mentors were more likely to talk about dealing with feelings (for example, on rejection) and strategies for productivity (this was not universally positive).

I wonder why women are more likely to talk about the politics and strategies in academia (this came up a number of times). Is it that women have thought more about these broader issues (due to trying to plan a family or simply because it’s something that, quite frankly, some of us get asked all. the. time.)? Do we pay more attention to politics? Is it because there is a tendency to attribute success to luck/strategy rather than hard work and skill?

For me, one of the most interesting comments was from a man, who describes himself as a shy, passive, and introverted individual. He said “My male mentors have encouraged more aggressive ‘alpha’ behavior… female mentors have been better at encouraging ways to quietly assert self.”

Which leads to another question – we know that having different people with different strengths and strategies, so why only make sure that there are women on the committees of women? Wouldn’t it be useful for men too***?

What is your experience with your village of mentors? What kind of information are you more likely to ask for or receive more from women vs men? What do you get asked?

Are there cases where would you react differently to the same kind of information from a man compared with a woman?

If you only have male – or only female – mentors, do you feel like there are things that you just don’t bother discussing with them? And if so, how do you fill that gap? (Other than visiting us here at Tenure She Wrote)

* Clearly a non-biased sample, and a really well designed questionnaire.

** Yes, the “women are more moody, men are more predictable” trope got pulled out, then tossed unceremoniously from the discussion

*** Though if there are fewer women in a department, that increases the burden on their time


16 thoughts on “LadyMentoring?

  1. This is an interesting post. I’d like to know how you found your undergrad mentor? Was that assigned to you or did you ask someone? It seems difficult (to me) to find mentors that you don’t have to pay for like career coaches.

    • I worked with in the laboratory of my undergrad mentor. It was a combination of only a couple of people that I would have worked with and who had space at the time – so mostly random.

  2. I think women are more interested in politics and strategies in academia because we need them more. It’s simply a matter to look at many other topics discussed in this blog to see that us women in academia deal with “special situations” (two-body problems, health issues, children, these shouldn’t be special situations in a perfect world) generally more often than men in academia and thus we need strategies and politics to make it.

    In my village of mentors I have men and women but the tendency is that men advice me on focused specific subjects and women advice me in more broad questions, more like role models. This is a very general appreciation, there are exceptions, of course. In my case, one exception is that I’m foreign and cultural background also seems to play a role (men with my cultural background can be great broad advisors to me).

    • either women ‘need’ to consider politics more, OR they realise that they were naive in the past and missed out on something, and therefore – if they are good mentors – they want to advise newbies to consider politics more.

  3. I like the idea here about exploring the roles of different mentors and asking people for their experiences regarding female mentors. I’m a little worried about the tendency to cast female mentors as “life coaches” simply because of their gender. Obviously, there are specific questions that only women can answer (such as pregnancy and careers). But, I know some male mentors who spend a lot of time with their students on broader questions about academic politics, career strategies and navigating the challenges of research life. On the flip side, I know some female mentors who are practically allergic to discussing these issues with their students.

    Because of this, I’m wary of the last statement in this post…

    why only make sure that there are women on the committees of women? Wouldn’t it be useful for men too***?

    I think this is a fantastic suggestion, but only for the right reasons. If the idea is that women committee members will serve the “life coach” function, I’m concerned. As much as I am dedicated to effective mentoring, I think we have to acknowledge that, just as some male mentors are weak in advising on broader issues, some female mentors are as well. Gender doesn’t guarantee engagement with students’ personal lives, and I don’t think we should expect it to. I’d love to see all mentors up their game when it comes to effective mentoring, but if we designate this an expected trait in female mentors, then we give some male mentors an excuse to shrug off their responsibilities onto women.

    • Laura (@MicroWavesSci) – Great comment. I think a really important point. Women should absolutely not be seen as life coaches, yes I agree that including them for that or “so they can be nurturing!” (a phrase I hope I never hear) would be… bad. For a lot of reasons. I was thinking of it more as different skillsets which is important for one’s mentoring village anyway; alternatively, a broader perspective on work and career, but I see how it could drift towards the extreme.
      Where do you see the onus on boundaries there? The mentor or mentee? (I’d think both? but particularly the mentor?)

      • Thanks to d. for making a great point below (reinforced by your follow-up comment) that male mentors can provide important support and advice about pregnancy and careers. Frowny face to me for assuming otherwise!

        I agree that boundaries for the mentee’s expectations of a mentor need to be negotiated between both. It might be useful to formalize expectations in a mentoring agreement. Developing this agreement could help mentors and mentees define clear roles and goals for the mentoring partnership. If mentors feel like some areas defined by the mentee are outside of their comfort zone, they could suggest other people as part of a mentoring team. I think a mentoring agreement could be especially important when assembling committees. Students might be surprised by which committee members can fulfill certain roles!

    • yes. However, it is extremely difficult to know in advance how good a fit a mentor will be, either personally or on a committee. So having a variety, as seems to be the underlying theme here and in other posts, is the only way to fly. Choice is often constrained by limited numbers of people …. and sometimes it is more important personally to choose a project rather than a person as primary adviser. So, finding other people to talk to formally or informally is a good thing.

      As an aside, someone who was most helpful to me in the lab when i was pregnant was not a woman, but a male technician whose wife was pregnant for the second time and a few weeks ahead of me. His anecdotes of how they were coping with kids and careers and life were just exactly what I needed, as I had no family or close friends nearby, who were at that stage of their lives and knew very few women who were planning to return to work after the birth of a child. So it isn’t necessarily the case that, as suggested men cannot help in advice about babies and careers.

      I would also like to hear further discussion on the comment in SciTriGrrl’s comment “Is it just a matter of identifying with “someone like me” (which is valuable in it’s own rite)?” Is it valuable? Does ;someone like me’ have to be someone of the same gender, or as mathgirl has indicated, is someone of a different culture important too/instead of, in some cases? OR is being of a different gender equivalent to being of a different culture?

      Sorry, more questions than answers here, very interested in peoples’ responses to these subtleties.

      • Adding to that – one person in the discussion on twitter commented that sometimes the variable seemed to be “mentors with kids” and “mentors without kids”, even with issues that had nothing to do with family.

  4. i have used the mentors in my life for a hand-up in very different aspects of my career, as i have needed them for very different things as my career has progressed.

    my graduate mentor was a good match for me both research-wise and personality-wise, though i mostly just kinda fell backasswards into the lab. (this is a long story.) i really needed someone who would cut the bullshit and not hold my hand. i needed more pushing to my farthest limits, beyond even what i thought i could do. i got exactly what i needed from that mentoring relationship at that time, though some limited offers of life advice happened here and there, and i was fine with that once we had established a working relationship. there were instances where i received less-than-understanding treatment when i was working weird hours due to some family medical stuff, and there were instances where i received complete non-judgment and support over these types of things. this was all from a female mentor. i had some informal mentors during this time who filled needs i had for the career-planning, the cheering section, the family support aspects, etc. these were not of the typical gendered stereotypes that one might assume based on what kind of support i received.

    i’ve had some other “mentors” between then and my current position, but they were not what i needed on a career basis or a personal basis and i ended those relationships because they were not serving anyone.

    i selected my current position based on the research, not the gender of the mentor. i did, however, recognize that my early career needs to be focused on publications. so i chose a mentor that has a track record of getting work out in the literature. i receive tremendous support on a career level, with my contributions always acknowledged on presentations, plentiful facetime with local important people, etc. i am clearly being put in a position to move up internally. this is *great* for my career at this institute. this mentor feels a particular duty to the junior people, takes an active and almost obnoxious interest in the family stuff but does not understand it, though is not always understanding when life throws work off balance. this is an area of weakness, perhaps, but i am also not finding myself lacking in other people who can provide this type of mentoring (or at least, validation that my life is a normal level of insane for someone who has offspring of this age). my current mentor is male.

    i have received mentoring on the work-life stuff from men as often as women. i’ve had strong advocates that were men and that were women. and the stuff i need that i don’t get, well, sometimes that all can’t come from one mentor. that’s why i seek out others. i still am not convinced that that there is career “lady mentoring” and “dude mentoring” that isn’t accounted for by personality differences of the mentor. role modeling and inherent understanding of gendered politics, now that’s a different story. but again, even the best role models might just tell you to fuck off when asked how they make it all happen, because being a good role model does not imply being a good mentor. and that’s fine too.

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  7. Great post. I have a male mentor and I guess for me it was an easy decision to go with him. I admire him not just for his research but also for the way he lives, and that was very important to me. I also generally get on better with men, so there’s that. I also trust him to the hilt, and given I suffer from a chronic illness that is very serious, that trust is paramount to a good working relationship.

    My associate supervisor is also a guy.

    If it had been between a man and a woman with equal talent? I don’t know. I tend to ask my mentor life questions as well as work questions, so I don’t see any problems there. I also agree with other commenters that I’d be wary of treating a female mentor as a complete fountain of wisdom or surrogate parent….I really try to avoid doing that with my mentor, but it can be hard sometimes. He gives such good advice!

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