Field of Science

Academia: Women helping women? Or not?

In her right-where-I-live piece about her fall from the academic ladder (also blogged here at The Curious Wavefunction), Kathy Weston makes an important point: Anyone in science needs a great mentor.

How about a woman in science? It's possible that she might need a mentor who's more than a scientist, a mentor who is also a woman, She Who Came Before and Succeeded. A woman new to the path might expect some enlightenment from such a mentor about how to deal with the sex-unique obstacles that women can encounter in academe and in science. Right? Mightn't she?

Yet, these kinds of role models were vanishingly rare when I was in my PhD program and beyond. In fact, at that time, only a handful of tenure-track faculty in our department were women, and they were just as rare in my tenure-track positions. I had only one woman who taught one of my many graduate classes.

Each of my dissertation committees (we had a committee for orals and one for defense) featured one female faculty member. You might think that we'd have had some camaraderie, what with having the same type of gonads and all, but we did not. There was such a paucity of tenured women at that time that a cursory glance at the faculty pictures in the building directory quickly told the entire story. So many dudes, so few dames. My choices were limited, and they weren't interested in me.

That was my experience with female faculty in graduate school. In my first tenure-track job, another female faculty member emerged as the only member of our animal care and use committee to throw up roadblocks in front of my approvals for using animals in research. Our various interactions all held this tone. There was no evidence of mutual support or bonding or a desire to help the women faculty, still woefully underrepresented in the department at the time.

Mentors are great to have. My postdoctoral PI was--and is--a great mentor. He fostered what I did well, supported my goals, allowed me a ton of leeway in getting things done, guided me through various paths to meeting other amazing scientists. He even took me to do a c-section on a hyena. Yes, I said, "hyena." This guy is truly a mentor, and his support was so helpful to me after years of not experiencing a mentoring relationship like that.

Why is it that in my comparatively brief travels through academe--I figure I spent a total of 15 years in the gyre--I've encountered three women who could've been something to me, something important, yet none of them were? Why is it that my sole fantastic mentor is a man, one who investigates penile development, of all things?

I know I've made reference to my gender identity, which is complex, and maybe this interplay of gender identity has more to do with these instant attractions and repulsions than primary sex. But I also know that while that lack of attraction may have played out between women I met at the top of the ladder and me, it didn't work that way between me and the women I had in my own lab during my time on the tenure track. I mentored them. I guided them, fed them, had them over for holidays because they were far from home, encouraged them, networked for them, and Go-Girled them. So, I know it can be done. It just wasn't ever done for me.

If you're a woman in academe...has it been done for you?

1 comment:

  1. I am a female graduate student in biology and though I have not had direct female mentors (there was one in my undergraduate biology department who was great, but my research interests never crossed paths with hers), I have been fortunate enough to have a wonderful male mentor as an undergraduate, who continues to be an important mentor to me as my graduate research progresses. Though it would be wonderful to have a female mentor as well, I feel privileged that my male mentor has seen in me something worth mentoring, regardless of my sex.

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