Women graduate students and the importance of mentors

i-9dc84d4d9156dccb30d5f62466b4219a-swblocks.jpgMary 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.

Mason argues:

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.

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Another great post - it hits very close to home for me. One of my "goals" throughout my graduate career was to find a woman that had children act as a mentor for me...and sadly enough, I never really found someone (some women had children, but they didn't seem to have a great work-life balance). It has definitely affected my opinion of academia.

It has been nice, over the past few months since I started blogging, to hear stories of real women making it work. So, to all of you - thanks, and keep writing!

Sometimes a grad student haven't a role model at the University. So, it is important to read about famous or not female scientists who were mothers. Also, your blog is a nice device to know that is possible 'being a woman and scientist'!
Thank you.

I wonder if seeing successful women at research universities with children changes the perceptions of all of the grad students. Some of the men will go on to be professors and professional colleagues of women who have children. How will the next generation of all professors be - will they assume that it's impossible to do great research and have kids, and will that affect their decisions about hiring and tenure? Or will they see women with kids as part of the normal mix in a department?

Having women as mentors and role models has made a huge difference for me. I don't think I would have ended up on the math side of ecology without the encouragement of my female mentors. I think they recognized much more than the men I worked with that I didn't understand what I was capable of.

I don't want children, but I understand very well why it is important for many to see women scientists with children succeeding. I have a chronic illness and didn't think I'd be able to be successful in science with it, but then I met an older and very successful woman scientist in my field who also has a serious chronic illness. She gave me a lot of honest advice and not all of it was pleasant, but I did walk away knowing that I could do it.

As a first year grad student, this makes me feel justified in my choice to rotate with several female professors. I haven't decided which lab to join yet, but the two frontrunners are both run by female scientists with children (which is what I would like to be someday!).

great post, very thought provoking. As a grad student and mother, having mentors who are also mothers has been the only thing that has kept me going when I thought that I couldn't "do it all"... although I'm still not sure I can tackle a life of academics.

This article also makes me sad because I miss Elizabeth Sulzman so very much.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 27 Mar 2009 #permalink

Mentors and role models are huge for female academics.

I have an advisor who had her first child between exams and dissertation at MIT in the 80s and added a second one during her post-doc. She also successfully navigated the two body academic issue - something I deal with as well. We are a decent fit research interest wise, but a great fit in personal circumstances and personality. She has been a life saver since I began this motherhood journey mid grad school precisely because she could be the poster example of someone who did not sacrifice kids for work or work for kids/marriage. It isn't even that she has a ton of advice on the work/life balance thing. It is just that (1) she acknowledges I have a personal life and (2) becomes that example for me. I know she did it - albeit a slower than some of her peers - and therefore I can do it.

I know I'm lucky. It would be fantastic to see more women like her to show more women like me (and men in the department) that it can be done.

This comes across really egotistical, but one of the reasons that I "never give up" is the silent realization that I AM a role model and I sure as heck better act like one.

I've had 3 female academic mentors, and not a single one of them has children.

I, on the other hand, have 2.

Sometimes a grad student haven't a role model at the University. It has definitely affected my opinion of academia. I have a chronic illness and didn't think I'd be able to be successful in science.

I found a mentor on this site: http://www.mentornet.net/ I've been emailing back and forth with her for the last few months. She has already helped me immensely. She is a full professor and former department chair with 2 teenagers. My male advisor is just that -- an advisor, but not a mentor. Now I go to my outside mentor for advice about issues that relate to being a woman in science.

In my despair at getting turned down for another funding proposal (rave reviews from reviewers, turned down flat by the funding committee), the only coherent reason I didn't give up my career last weekend was because I did't want my daughter to see her mother beaten down and walking away from something she is really good at, because of the injustice or lack of opportunity.

In my experience, a scientific environment is not family friendly, and we go there at our own peril. Mentors can make a wonderful difference,but the struggles are very real. I think women who succeed (with children or other dependents) are truly amazing.

I'm not even sure I ever want to have children but it still makes a difference for me to see female faculty members who have succeeded at having both a career in academia and a family. Even if I don't want a family of my own right now, or ever, I don't want to embark on a career that cuts me off from ever having the option.

At my current school I found such a woman as a mentor. I spend nearly as much time working with her lab as my own and regularly talk with her about science and my career. She's also the only female faculty member in my department that I see really standing up to the men.

She just got a job offer at another school and will likely be leaving us soon and while I'm happy for her I'm very sad to see her go. We are also (probably) losing 2 other female faculty members this year, which will leave only 2 women, compared to 15+ men. (In contrast the graduate students are more than 75% female)