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