Affirmative action: good enough for the gander

I’ve been thinking a lot about mentoring lately.  In part, this is because of a recent interview with Sunday Magazine, in which I was explicitly asked for examples to counter the perception that women are less likely to mentor other women: the so-called Queen Bee syndrome.  I was pretty clear in my own opinion that women mentors are harder to find in science for the simple reason that there are fewer senior women than men; unequal expectations do no one any favours, and my own experience would suggest that men are equally capable of being good mentors for women.

But is this entirely true?  There’s the common story, which I had mentally consigned to the past until I heard a version a couple of months ago from a young engineer: upon meeting her boss’s wife, she was given a head to toe scan and then greeted with the words: “Well, he’s not taking you on any work trips”.  But what is this really?  Is it a case of women being harsher on each other, or simply that women are willing to be more upfront about it?   Could it be better to know that your boss is taking your junior colleague with him to a conference because he is worried about what people will think if he travelled with a young woman?   Better to know that this is the case, rather than take it as a reflection on your work? Ripples of doubt indeed.

In science, at least with the parts of it with which I am familiar, these stories seem to have disappeared.  I have had a number of excellent mentors at one stage or another in my career and for different periods of time: as I try to make a tally, the gender ratio is about 4:1 men to women.  This is a fair – perhaps even slightly generous – representation of the gender balance in my field.

So what a mentor supposed to do for you?  This may seem obvious, but thinking about the way that the relationship functions is probably important if we want to tease out the origin of any – even if only perceived – differences due to gender.  And why is there a perception that women need to be mentored exclusively by other women?  Is it just that men are awkward about it, or is there something else going on?

My suspicion is that a large part of the problem is that we conflate the two major roles that senior women can play in science.  The first is simply that of the role model – the women who, by virtue of their own success, become visible symbols of the ability of women to succeed in their fields.  This doesn’t need to be a personal relationship – Marie Curie still functions pretty well in this role, though she is sorely overworked.  In addition to anecdotal evidence, there is research that looks at the influence of role models on the progression of girls into science, though some of the evidence points to the dismantling of stereotype being more important than gender itself.

This leads into the conflict between those who claim we need ‘smart and sexy’ STEM rolemodels, and those who think good looks might do us a disservice, but I’ll leave that depressing discussion for another time.

In contrast, the role of mentor is, necessarily, a personal one.  In science, we are often mentored by the people that we work with directly, as students and postdocs; at a later stage processes may differ, but in many universities there is an official mentor assigned to junior academics, as part of standard procedure in the hiring of staff.  Mentors are go-to people: they answer questions about how science works: from difficulites encountered during peer review, to advice on how to deal with a difficult supervisor, or, as a beginning supervisor, on how to best go about directing the work of a PhD student.  Ideally, mentors are also aware enough to tell you the answers to questions that you don’t know to ask: this is when a mentor is most valuable. Unlike role models, mentoring is not what gets women into science – but it makes a crucial difference in terms of keeping women in science.

The second reason I started thinking so much about mentoring, was reading about a book by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, called Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor, on the difference between mentoring and sponsorship. Think what you will about the term – for me the words mentor and sponsor produce inescapable images of the Hunger Games – but the point being made is a good one.  What I have outlined above as the role of a mentor is the necessary stuff: you will find someone to answer these questions, though the answers may differ in quality.  Sponsorship, as Hewlett describes it, is a far more active process: direct advocacy based on your potential, not on your performance; referrals for positions or promotion that go well beyond writing a letter of recommendation.  In fact, I’m not sure that I can describe it as anything other than special treatment. e.g.

“A sponsor is someone influential who will pound the table for you”

So the question becomes: when is special treatment normal?  Unfortunately, the answer, if you are a woman, seems to be: never.  Special treatment, for a man, may be earned – deserved – because of merit.  Women learn early that special treatment is strictly to be avoided.  Perhaps you deserve it – but will that stop your colleagues from thinking – or even saying – that it is because of your gender?  A man who is promoted quickly – even surprisingly quickly – does not have that Achilles heel. It’s just normal:

“There is so much that is impossible to know ahead of time about anyone’s leadership potential, it’s probably just human nature for people to sponsor people who remind them of their younger selves. So men tend to sponsor other men.”

At a dinner recently, I was sitting with a visiting Professor from overseas, who was lamenting the gender balance of the recently awarded senior fellowships in his country.  I initially thought I had misunderstood him, but no: he was complaining that the gender balance – at a ratio of 9:11 – was too equal.  He isn’t an obvious misogynist, so I listened to his rationale: he was annoyed because a colleague in his department had been elected, and unspecified ‘people’ were now saying behind her back – and perhaps even to her face, I don’t know – that it was only because she was a woman.  He claimed that the only reason that the ratio was now 9:11 was that new policies had been put in place to artificially advantage women: he gave as evidence that the year before no women had been elected.

I’m generally a little impatient with the notion that we need to get men to start leading the conversations around women in science: participating, yes; but there is often the implication that men need to be included because they are the ones with the power, rather than simply because they are also part of the puzzle.  However this provides a really simple example of just how men can contribute usefully by following a simple rule: if anyone ever comments to you that a women has gotten where she is because she is a woman: just say No.

I’m reluctant to add anything further to the list of things that senior women in science must do.  As role models, they must achieve the rather complicated trick of both being pretty and yet not intimidatingly so; they must go out of their way to mentor all young women in their path; they must sponsor women into positions of power.  Yes, but also no: the second two of these items are just as easily done by men. So here’s another suggestion for the men: volunteer to be a mentor, think about sponsoring a woman.  The job might ‘naturally’ fall to your female colleagues: that doesn’t mean that it should.

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2 Responses to Affirmative action: good enough for the gander

  1. Pingback: Sex Cells | Kimberley Collins

  2. Allie jean says:

    Umm honestly science needs to stop being sexist and work on there job. Charles Darwin is an idiot for starting a huge fight that now leads to 2014. I still hear these scientist fightin about all of this sexism. But they all need to wake up and be apart of reality and stop living in the past drop all of the sexism..

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