Mary Ann Mason has a column in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education describing the importance of role models and mentors for women graduate students. Though Zuska recently wrote a provocative post that argued that “the problem of motherhood” might be a red herring for those interested in increasing the representation of women in science, Mason’s column provides some data that suggest the problem of motherhood is very real.
Role models, particularly ones with children, can make the difference in whether a female graduate student takes the next big step along the tenure track. While undergraduates are influenced simply by seeing a female faculty member, graduate students need to see that she is able to have children as well as a career.
At the University of California, we surveyed 8,000 doctoral students across all disciplines and found that the fewer female professors they see with children, the less likely they are to view tenure-track faculty careers at research universities as family friendly. Only 12 percent of the students viewed research universities as family friendly if they were in departments in which few of the female professors had children, compared with 46 percent of students in departments where female professors commonly had children.
Female graduate students are not just deterred from pursuing tenure-track positions at research universities because they’ve independently and spontaneously decided that motherhood and scientific research careers are incompatible. Instead, they are strongly influenced by the lack of visible, successful scientist mothers to serve as role models.
Mason goes on to say that there is a distinction between role models and mentors:
Female role models are important for what they stand for — the possibility of success — whether or not they have a personal relationship with a particular student or young faculty member. Mentors, however, are people who take a personal interest in a young woman’s future and provide much-needed help and advice at critical times along the career track — and they are often men.
Advisers, who should serve as mentors, can both help and hurt students’ careers, and women can be at a disadvantage if they get stuck with a faculty mentor who has deep-seated gender biases.
Insert your favorite horror story here. Mason’s column contains one of a graduate student assembly president who was marginalized and neglected by her advisor, as were all the women in her lab. Prospective graduate students should look hard at prospective advisors, not only for a match of scientific interest, but also advising style, and success and diversity of lab members. But I think that finding a supportive advisor isn’t enough, students (and post-docs and early career faculty), should also look for role models and mentoring beyond their primary advisor.
But that means that all of us have the responsibility to be role models and mentors in our own small or large ways. As Mason writes,
Role models are not always aware of their influence, but a mentor’s actions are intentional. … Each of us — as graduate students working with undergraduates, or as faculty members guiding doctoral students and young faculty members — can become a mentor. If we do not do so, we will reinforce the stereotype that the university is a cold and competitive work environment where family life is unimportant.
This is a statement that I fully endorse. It’s part of why I blog, it’s part of why I occasionally mention my daughter in classes, and it’s a big part of why I try to be compassionate with the chaotic lives of my students. It’s a whole hell of a lot easier for me to be a woman science professor than it was for my mom, and I want the women who follow in my footsteps to have an even better experience than mine. But that won’t happen by just letting the older generation of profs quietly retire, it means that the current generation of young faculty need to work actively to dismantle the stereotypes and make academic science a good work environment for all people. So here’s to the role models, but even more so, here’s to the mentors amongst us.