Proper Relationships, Professional Contexts (or, who put the "men" in "mentoring?")

Laura Helmuth has written what I think is one of the most important posts so far to emerge from the fray that is Bora Zivkovic's: Don’t Be a Creep: Lessons from the latest terrible, sad, fascinating scandal in the science blogging world. Before getting to what I think is the most important part of her post, I want to first say what the most important overall lessons are, clearly, from this whole maneno, because they are different than the lesson Laura writes about:

1) Men behaving poorly in relation to women, in the context of power imbalances (but also without the power imbalance) is widespread to the extent that many women (meaning, guys, many of the women you personally know) are subjected to some kind of bad behavior or another on a regular basis, ranging from random out of the blue unwanted sexual attention to being placed in a position of needing to appease some man's interests in order to be taken seriously or given the same access to opportunities as a man might get without socio-sexual extortion, and of course, worse. I am constantly astonished at the degree to which men who claim to be well informed about sexism and who claim, even, to be feminists are incredulous when confronted with personal stories such as "I get hit on by strangers every single day on the bus" or "I've gotten harassed in a professional context way more times than I can count ... this month" etc. Such statements are too often assumed to be exaggerations. Also, harassment and unwanted sexual attention of this sort is often assumed by those who don't experience it to be not that big of a deal. The truth is, how big of a deal it is for a person is a matter of that person's experience, and I would guess, plus some two-digit number of percent to account for the fact that we humans are good at putting away a certain amount of bad experience for our psyches to use later against us. Indeed, many men view "unwanted sexual attention" as a good thing, something they themselves would like more of. That is called being clueless.

OK, this set of closely related facts did not emerge from the Bora thing, it was already there, but we are reminded to remind ourselves and each other of this. And, also not discovered over the last weekend but in need of restating and emphasis:

2) Women who are subject to sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior (of a wide range) ... i.e., women ... probably usually feel uncomfortable talking about these things, or for that matter, doing something about their own experiences. We should assume that a contributing factor in this discomfort is the widespread and incorrect writing off of the experience as either rare or not so bad (see number one above). So, when a woman does come forward with a well described very credible (and especially, verified by the other person in the deal, the harasser) the automatic reaction should be to support that woman in whatever way we can, minimally by accepting the person's account of their own reaction, pain, or trouble. What it means to that person is what the thing was (plus the above cited mark-up, I assume), not what you or I or anyone else thinks it means.

But what was Laura's special insight that I wanted to mention? It has to do with mentoring. Mentoring is considered very important in most professions, and in academia. The idea is that a young student, upper division college or graduate school, or a post doc who is on a particular career track, gets a mentor, an established professional who can help guide that person through the process of professional development, around the land mines, towards key objectives, etc. etc. This sounds like a good thing, and in fact, it is a good thing when it works. More notably, I think, in our current system it is demonstrably a bad thing when mentoring does not occur at all or is done poorly. Students and early stage professionals who, in our current system, either don't really end up with a mentor, or who are mentored by a bad mentor, can suffer and do poorly.

The fact that the absence of mentoring or poor mentoring has negative consequences naturally and perhaps reasonably leads us to conclude that mentoring is good and there should be more of it, and mentors should be trained better to do a better job. And that is not entirely wrong.

But, maybe we should be looking at this very differently. Laura Helmuth says:

We glibly advise people starting out in business to find a mentor, to identify a successful, established, generous person in your field and somehow get her to help you become her.

This is terrible advice. It perpetuates old-boy networks, wastes time that early career people could spend actually doing their work, and tells them they are only as good as their contacts and charm. Young people, don’t look for a mentor. Listen to and learn from people who have more experience, but don’t hitch your wagon to their star. Just do your job well.

Now, you established people, listen up. You will occasionally meet younger people who go out of their way to speak with you at professional events, ask you interesting and sometimes personal questions, and hang on your every word. Those are not puppy-dog, crushed-out eyes staring up at you. These are eyes hungry for a professional break. These people are not trying to sleep with you. They are trying to get hired by you.


I've always taken mentoring very seriously, but Laura indirectly points out that mentoring and its value is received knowledge not sufficiently examined with a critical eye. I've paid attention to and analyzed the mentoring I received (or didn't) and I think my own experience actually follows Larua's model pretty well. Irv DeVore was my longest-term mentor, and he was a great colleague, a close friend, and helped me a lot, and he was a good mentor, but when it came to my research, mostly hands off. Rather, he helped me get grants. Informally, Nancy DeVore (Irv's wife) was my writing mentor, and she is the second toughest and best editor I've ever worked with. I'm not sure if she ever actually slapped me but I sure felt like it a few times. DeVore followed the Helmuth Model in that he handed me off to others who were more expert in the areas of research and methods that I needed, and actually, he didn't hand me off, I went and found them. As a result of this, my PhD thesis was signed by Ofer Bar-Yosef, Israeli archaeologist, Irv DeVore, primatologist, Mark Pagel, statistician and evolutionary theorist, and John Yellen, ethnoarchaeologist and head of Anthropolgoy at NSF. Pretty nice range of dudes (and yes, all dudes, all good ol' boys but mostly the good kind, I'm sure). Of these people I regard DeVore, Bar-Yosef and Pagel as having been mentors. John was a colleague and outside reader (we did not live in the same city or even state). After graduate school, no other individuals who could ever be called a mentor for me ever did anything along these lines that was of any use, especially at the junior faculty level, aside from continued support from Irv, of course.

I think and hope (or convince myself it is true!) that I've been been a pretty good mentor for some of my students. But what follows Larua's model is the degree to which my mentoring relationship with each student has been completely different from every other student. There have been students with whom I've worked intensively on both writing and research, spending hours going over stuff and working on things together. With other students, my role has been almost entirely to represent the student at faculty meetings and write recommendations, but otherwise just get an update now and then from the student (so I could do those two things well). In the latter case, the mentee was typically being advised on research by one or more other individuals more closely involved in the particular work being done, generally at research facilities elsewhere (on campus or beyond) as needed. I've taken the job of mentoring seriously, and been fairly thoughtful about it, and consciously tried to find the best solution for each student. But, and this proves Laura's point, there has been absolutely no relationship as far as I can tell between the amount of direct involvement I've had with a particular student, vs the student assembling a longer list of colleagues to help in research and career development, and those student's success or happiness. In other words, a solid and intense one-on-one mentoring relationship did not produce the best results. There was no clear difference between one-on-one mentoring and students finding a collection of colleagues to work with (my advice being sometimes but often not useful in doing that).

The best advice I've probably given students, and I've given this to all my students since I started any kind of advisory role as a freshly minted PhD, is this: Advice (including this advice I'm giving you now) is not necessarily worth anything. Advice is a reaction someone else in the world has to something you did, something you showed them, or something they observed. Understand their advice in that context, and use it, modify it, or ignore it as you see fit. I think this advice might correspond to what Laura is saying. Develop relationships with a range of colleagues (many of whom will be your senior when you are starting out) and do what makes sense. For the potential mentor, take your role in doing the same thing; help your students develop multiple contacts and relationships with both individuals and other entities (labs, institutions, etc.) as needed.

Obviously Laura's advice is meant to help mainly young women to avoid finding themselves in power differential fueled bad mentee positions. But this approach works more broadly than that. The smaller number of students with whom I worked closest are those with whom I'm still in most regular contact and in some cases whom I consider friends, or for whom I'm still playing a similar role. Indeed, I'm writing five letters of recommendation for jobs or grants over the next two weeks and they are all for students with whom I worked closest. Meanwhile I know some of my other students are moving from post-doc to junior faculty, or beyond, or getting grants, mainly using recommendations from those specific experts they worked with while working on their degrees, because those are the people in the subfields and the most appropriate recommenders.

And bringing it back to the first two points made above, before we started talking about mentoring, as Laura says, "recognize that you have a tremendous responsibility to take your mentees seriously. ... you have a lot of power in comparison, even if you have just a few years more experience or feel like a cog yourself. Be respectful, be appropriate, be professional. Above all else, do not be a creep."

In case you missed it here's the link to that post.

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By Sharon Astyk (not verified) on 23 Oct 2013 #permalink