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ADVANCE Faculty Mentoring Tutorial

Gender Politics and Mentoring




The mentoring relationship offers an opportunity for the mentor and mentee to demonstrate their skills and abilities and to learn from each other. However, contemporary gender politics tend to put a new spin on traditional mentoring (Indiana University, 1995). In this era when mentoring must do more than merely replicate the "old boy's network," several important questions arise that necessarily complicate the issue


Do women mentor and need to be mentored differently from men? Since women, on the whole, tend to manage conflict, authority, teamwork, and delegation differently than men do, it makes sense that the mentoring they receive should not ignore those differences.  In this context, how important is it for women to have female mentors? Do those formal mentoring programs designed to increase the retention of women and/or minorities in fields where they have traditionally been underrepresented actually work, or is the mentoring relationship a more organic one that must naturally develop out of mutual interest?

Researchers have discovered that "insufficient informal guidance and sponsorship have been cited as especially damaging for women graduate students who are at the point of transition between student and professional and must begin to build a professional identity."

"As a woman aspiring to participate in a male-dominated, intellectually-driven field," says one graduate student, "there is nothing like the reassurance one gathers from simply watching other women succeed in academic positions. Mentoring takes that reassurance to new heights."

In fields such as mathematics and the physical sciences where women have been traditionally under-represented, women graduate students and early-career faculty may avoid seeking out same-sex mentoring as a survival tactic because doing so is seen as admitting a special need or "deficiency." In highly male-dominated fields, sometimes not calling attention to the fact that she is not male like most everyone else is a woman's best shot at making it. This "psychology of tokenism" encourages women entering such professions to learn to fit into and thus replicate the existing structure. But in order for women to play sustained roles in these traditionally male professions, they must actively sponsor other women.
Research bears out the assumption that mentored new faculty women attain higher rank than those without mentors.  Increasing the number of women faculty on campuses requires not only their successful recruitment, but also a welcoming environment where women can thrive. In studies about faculty retention, women faculty are more likely to cite personal reasons that include feelings of social and professional isolation for leaving an institution. Any comprehensive plan to retain women faculty members must also include a mechanism whereby women who have successful academic careers can share what they have learned with their new colleagues.

There are certain problems unique to women in the academy that can be better tackled woman to woman.

“We can talk about teaching, about dealing with the expectations that we do more service than men, and be cheery about it...We have to work with men and we need to do it well. To be savvy, one should develop a broad network of support. Woman-to-woman is part of that network."

Unfortunately, the subject of sexual harassment is a necessary part of any conversation about mentoring. One might say that the potential for sexual harassment exists in all mentoring relationships -that both men and women are potential victims and potential perpetrators of sexual harassment. Yet statistics show that the overwhelming numbers of sexual harassment victims in the academy are women with complaints against men.  The changing gender demographics of our graduate students and untenured faculty call for discussion of new models of collegiality and professional development that avoid such abuses of authority.

Research suggests that in contrast to the traditional model of mentoring in which a person hitches his future to that of a "star," women want mentoring from a number of mentors. Ideally, women are better off seeking many mentors, some of them being men. However, mentoring across genders can only be successful in an organization that equitably respects and rewards men's and women's professional performance.