I've written various versions of this post over the past few months and deleted all of them. But today, the muse has hit me, and since I've been thinking a lot about this topic lately, I thought I'd share some of my thoughts.
Let me start with a controversial statement: I have mixed feelings about mentoring women---specifically, about mentoring technical women.
To understand this, it helps to have some background information. When I was an undergraduate, I was one of those "lone ranger" types of women. Those of you in male-dominated fields probably know what I'm talking about: every class has that one girl who doesn't sit with the other girls, who for that matter doesn't talk to many of the guys either. She is a loner; she doesn't want to associate her own identity with her classmates ("well, I'm majoring in X, but I'm not like the other X majors"); she wants no part of the community. She is majoring in X because she really, really likes X but is conflicted about the stereotype of people who major in X. And she thinks she can hack it on her own: she doesn't ask for help, doesn't go to office hours, because doing so would mean that in fact she's not cut out to be an X major.
This was me....at least, up until the second semester of my senior year, when I finally "saw the light" and started associating with other X majors, participating in study groups, even (gasp!) going to the occasional office hour. I realized how necessary community was for survival, particularly as one of few females in my field. I am convinced that the only way I was able to survive grad school was because of the friendships/study groups/etc I formed with the few other women in my department. (Even now, we are each others' strongest and staunchest supporters.)
So anyway, now I realize the value of community, especially communities of women within a male-dominated field. And I feel compelled to foster the creation of these whenever possible. Including in my own department
But....I still remember what it was like to be an undergrad, to have that loner mentality. I see it in some of our students. And here's the stupid thing: I have a fear of reaching out to these students. My fear is a fear of being rejected, of making them feel like they need "extra help" in order to survive here, of making them feel even more singled out than they already are (because their numbers are so few). And this fear has prevented me from actually carrying out my community-building ideas.
The thing is, I do not have this same fear of one-on-one mentoring. I have created mentoring relationships with students, and I don't have the same fear of rejection that I do when I think about doing something more group-based. Perhaps it's because I view mentoring as something that can be done by taking the individual at face value, that does not explicitly require any sort of reference to gender or difference.
I know that if I want to create a community of women students in my department, it is up to me, both symbolically and realistically, as the sole woman, to take the initiative. I think I'd have some student support. Now I just need to get over my fear.....and that's turning out to be the toughest hurdle so far.
(I guess, in the end, that's why it's been so hard for me to write this post. Admitting fear, especially over something so minor, is tough to do.)