Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Thoughts on mentoring women

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.)


geeky said...

when i was in college, one of the female CS profs started a "support" group for other women in the major - students and faculty alike. i say "support" becuase it was really just social gathering to foster communication. i never actually went to one (loner!), but you could start something similar. that way the opportunity for the students would be there, but they wouldn't feel forced into something and it doesn't feel like they're getting help.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it matters so much if it is group or individual ... the important thing is being an approachable role model for the young women entering the field.

I know of a CS prof, for example, who won't serve as major prof for female doc students because they're never "dedicated enough" -- and that's a problem.


Jane said...

Geeky (fellow loner!), in fact that's what I have in mind: a once-a-month lunch thing, very informal. If it grows from there, great, but I'm taking it one lunch at a time, so to speak.

Profgrrrl, I totally agree that the important thing is to just be a role model, but I'm getting the sense that I have to do something more "visible" to our women majors. Especially in light of what happened last night (see my most recent post). Unfortunately, I've met women like that CS prof you know....and it's a shame. Ick!

mali said...

I'm way out of my field here, but can I guess that tech women would be a bit turned off by the term "support group"? I think I would create a speakers series that focused on women's topics: bring in different women in the field, whether academic or professional, women in developing areas of scholarship, and then occasionally, on issues facing women in the field like sexism, mentoring, --any topic that would tend to draw a mostly-female crowd. That is, I'd make it a topic-oriented session that strapped-for-time students could justify attending, that your colleagues couldn't dismiss as "fluff." You'd have a bit of socializing afterward, see how gradwomen responded, and take it from there....
Here's what Sheri Sheppard at Stanford does for women in ME: ME Women's Seminars (after years of working there--she's really amazing)

bitchphd said...

I was v. like that, too. And I am all in favor of mentoring women now, especially since I realize how much I could have used it back then (I once actually turned down a "women's leadership workshop" opportunity that I'd been recommended for by a Dean, my god). My fear isn't that women will feel they "need help," but just that they'll turn it down--I think one way to do it is not to present it as "help," but as an "opportunity." Still, people won't take it, but that might overcome the fear you're talking about to some extent...

Wanna Be PhD said...

I did that too, the loner thing, but now (grad school) it's even worse. I sit in My Appartment writing the thesis ALONE.

I think something social would be great, like the chance to have some coffee together after a talk or a colloquium. I've never been to a "support group" because I didn't need "support", I needed friends and someone to chat with.