Friday, March 09, 2007

Mentoring on the sly

As the only woman in my department, I often find myself in bizarre situations, where the answer is not immediately obvious and it's not like I can run down the hall and ask one of my male colleagues how I should handle the situation. Particularly when my male colleagues are, shall we say, part of the problem---sometimes inadvertently or unknowingly, but still, part of the problem.

One of these bizarre situations is this: I feel like I have to *hide* most of the mentoring that I do when the mentoring is specific to women. I feel like I have to mentor women on the sly.

You may be thinking that this is silly, given that my department apparently considers me to be the resident expert on mentoring. But the truth is there are some members of my department who make me feel paranoid about showing any sort of special treatment to anyone, but particularly women. It's a bit easier to deal with the ones that come right out and say that what I'm doing is wrong-headed and---my favorite---"unfair". But most of them will express their displeasure---perhaps unknowingly, I really don't know what their motives are---in a more subtle way. For instance, saying things like "I was talking to [female major] the other day, and she was saying that she is really uncomfortable about applying to such-and-such a program, because she doesn't want to feel like she's getting an edge because she's a woman." Or comments on how it's so much easier for our women majors to get into grad school, and isn't that a shame for some of our talented male majors. (I can hear Zuska throwing up on someone's shoes right now in response!) These comments seem to crop up with increasing frequency when the subject of mentoring/recruiting women comes up, or when it becomes obvious that I'm doing some sort of mentoring or nice thing for our women majors.

Anyway, whatever the motive or intent, these statements don't exactly make me want to go shout from the rooftops that I'm doing something nice or positive for our women majors. And they do tend to make me sort of paranoid about mentoring in the first place---I second- and third-guess myself before going ahead and doing something. But what this has really done is drove my mentoring almost totally underground. And I think this is a shame, because I think our women students, majors or not, *should* know that there is someone here who can be a resource and ally to them. Even if they decide not to take advantage of that resource, or decide that they don't need to use that resource, I think they should know that there is such a resource out there in case one day they do need it.

The latest example of this came when I decided to give copies of She's Such A Geek to some of our women majors. A nice guesture, right? Well, I thought this thing out to death. To whom should I send the books? Will the students think it's weird? How can I get the books to the students without my colleagues finding out? What sort of flak will I get from my colleagues for this if they do find out? So what started off as a "random act of kindness" turned into something very unnecessarily stressful for me. (In case you're interested, I ended up sending them to the women I took to Grace Hopper and to one of my advisees who's had a rough time of it lately.)

This is not to say that the actions of my colleagues will deter me from mentoring or from doing these things---far from it! I just think it's a shame that I have to feel so guilty about doing things like this and that I can't really have honest and substantive discussions with my colleagues about mentoring women. Because I think all of us---faculty and students---could benefit from open and honest discussions and actions like this.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

that is ridiculous, antediluvian thinking. e.g., the recent CRA article Gender Differences: Recognizing and Developing Potential in Female Students is explicit: Because of the social isolation in computer science for females, it is more important to have a mentor relationship.

pjm said...

We got a Grace Hopper announcement for the fall recently, and I rolled it directly to the women in our undergrad research group, copying the senior who went last year so she could pitch in her two cents. I'm hoping we can send another big crew again next year (even though I'll be on leave then.) I bookmarked your posts so I could send those links as well if anyone was wavering... so you could argue that you're even mentoring at institutions not your own. (And we'll be doing another faculty search next year, to support the new interdisciplinary cognitive sciences major, if that's close to your area.)

Laura said...

It's funny because men mentor other men all the time and don't think of it as playing favorites. I've been witness (in a non-technical field) to men giving their advisees books or suggesting conferences to attend, etc. I'm sure you've witnessed the same thing. A great way to diffuse this whole situation would be to point out one of those instances. Or maybe your male faculty don't mentor at all? Are they "I did this without any help so you can too" types?

Twice said...

I went to a graduate school that had a huge program once a year for middle school girls. Every year at the initial planning meetings, someone yould bring up the question of whether or not it was unfair not to invite boys. This was usually somewhat contentious, only because the last thing anyone in the room wanted to do was discriminate, or appear to be giving special treatment. But everyone saw the value in the girls only environment, and this always won out after much discussion.

However, one year the debate was stopped fairly quickly. One woman said something like "Look, every year scores of female postdocs and graduate students put in a ton of time to organize and run this, sometimes with the support of their research advisor, sometimes not. We never have a shortage of undergraduate women volunteering to help either. All these women spend this time because they think it is important and neccessary - often because of some imbalance they've seen or discrimiation they've faced. If the male graduate students feel that strongly about running something for boys, they can run their own workshop, and we will volunteer to help."

I don't recall the issue coming up again while I was there.

Michael Flessas said...

If you are concerned about the male attitude towards women in your field, might it not have been useful to give the book to male students as well? If a book had been given to only to male students, would you have found it discriminatory if women were excluded? Treat everyone the way you wish to be treated and expect the same from them.

Lastly, when your colleagues make comments about how women have an advantage now because of gender as opposed to, say, their ability to think and work, ask them for their proof. Concrete proof. Statistics that can be verified. Otherwise, tell them that anecdotal and partial evidence is not worth considering and you would find it useful if they got to their fundamental question.

Saoirse said...

This stuff makes me so mad. My school paper ran an article about how the CS department wanted to have a summer program for pre-freshmen, which would have several slots reserved for women students. People (including several women students) carried on about how that was unfair and discriminatory,etc. when to me it is just another way of making sure women students are getting the support that they often don't get through other means.

Anyhow, I am glad your students have you, regardless of what your colleagues say.

Anonymous said...

In an educational computing class in 1996 the English major sitting next to me said he took the class to get a better understanding of what his girlfriend, a CS major, was doing. He then proceeded to tell me disturbing anecdotes about how badly she treated by the CS profs and male students. A few years later, I heard that a listserv and other programs had been set up for female CS majors, but the male CS majors complained so much about being left out that the next year they got their own listserv and special programs too. It's the squeaky wheel that gets the grease.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I omitted a word above. The English major told me how badly his girlfriend majoring in CS *was* treated by the CS profs and male students, not that she treated other badly.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

spammer, you give anonyms a bad name.

Jane said...

Wow, thanks for the comments, everyone! I should post more venting posts on Friday afternoons...those seem to be my most popular. :)

Anon #1, I saw that article, too but hadn't gotten around to reading it yet. I will be sure to read it, and hopefully remember some of the points the next time I am challenged on my mentoring practices. Thanks!

pjm, I'm glad I can serve as a mentor to your students! :)

Laura, the thing is that they *do* mentor students, so I don't know where this is coming from. (Now I do think that they sometimes mentor the men much more effectively---not always, but many times---but that's probably a subject for another post.) I think some of them see and hear about the mentoring I do specifically for women students and project that into this idea that I *only* mentor women students, which is not true. And some of them do hold this idea that the best way we can "help" women is to not give them any "extra help", even when that "extra help" is just helping them navigate some of these unseen barriers and unconscious biases....ack!

twice, what a great story! I will try to remember that the next time I am challenged. (Maybe I should just print out the comments to these and similar posts of mine, and carry them with me at all times, so that I am appropriately armed for these discussions with my colleagues!)

Michael, I like the idea of challenging them for numbers, and will try that tactic (if I can remember it)---thanks! The book in question was something that I thought was particularly relevant to our female students, because it's a book of essays on different women's experiences in sci/tech fields and arenas. So I was thinking more along the lines of "who would benefit most from hearing this message", and it was this particular set of women students. Although I certainly think that some of my male colleagues would enjoy reading this, too, and plan on loaning out my copy (assuming any of them are interested).

saiorse, that is a sad story! I see this attitude in some of our women students too. On the one hand, it's understandable in the sense that (a) some of them don't want to feel singled out any more than they already are, and "siding with the boys" is one way of doing this; and/or (b) they've not yet experienced any discrimination, and thus don't think such "special treatment" is warranted. But it makes me sad anyway to hear about things like this.

Anon #2, thanks for sharing those stories! Although I did get a kick of out picturing that guy's girlfriend treating her CS professors badly. :) I'm sorry, but not surprised, to hear about her experiences. The stories I've heard from our female majors haven't been anything overt, but it's the stupid subtle stuff that wears on a person day in and day out that's just as harmful---that seems to be the bulk of what's happening around here.

Kristin said...

Hey, thanks for supporting She's Such a Geek! Glad you thought well enough of the book to share it with other women.

And yes, I think men should read it, too. We can be so used to being the outlier in the male-dominated culture of scitech to think that SSAG is "just" a women's book, but you know, really it's a people's book. These are stories that men should be aware of, too. I was really pleased that the turnout at both of the San Francisco readings was 50/50 in terms of the gender ratio.

Very thought-provoking post, I definitely want to follow up over at SSAG (but we'll see if I manage to do that).

Jane said...

Kristin, I hope you do get a chance to follow-up---I'd love to hear your thoughts!

As I mentioned in one of the comments, I do plan on loaning this to my male colleagues, or at least some of them. Because as you mention, they should be made aware of what's *really* going on. (I picture loaning this to my more sympathetic colleagues first---the ones who sort of get it, but then still do stupid boneheaded things to make things worse instead of better, thinking that they're really "helping" in some sense. Maybe reading these stories is the push they need to finally "fully" get it? At least, that's my hope!)

Tanya said...

Jane,
Just keep doing it.It is very important for us ( girls)to get through. Last CS class I took had only 2 girls: me and someone else. Requirement to find a partner made me desperate ( and depressed). I almost dropped out. Many different things kept me through, but I know someone else did not survive at all...( well,we started with 4 or 5 girls)

Do not care what other say. Care about what your students need. It will pay off. Not to mention they will adore you.

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