Mentoring, is often used to target career progression for academic women — but could furthering this agenda include mentoring men?

I’ve been thinking recently about a mentoring programme which involves senior academic women mentoring more junior academic men. I’ve been considering if and how this could not only provide senior women with coaching and mentoring expertise useful to them in advancing their own careers, but also provide new male academics with the benefits that come from being mentored by women in senior positions. Bear with me…yes there are short term individual benefits to those new lecturers, but more importantly I think there could also be systemic or structural benefits here that in the long term help more women advance into senior positions.

I am considering that the new male lecturers would go on to eventually be senior academics, and my question is, would they as a result of this early mentoring become leaders who are more attuned to gender imbalances within academia, and how to address them.

My job is to design coaching and mentoring opportunities for PhD students and for early career researchers (ECRs). Although an ECR commonly would be a postdoctoral research associate, on a fixed-term contract, within 10 years of receiving their doctorate… in reality ECR can mean anyone, ±doctorate, with any job title or status, who considers themselves on a research career trajectory. Externally funded research fellows, and new lecturers can easily come under this umbrella term.

I have been challenged recently to defend how a mentoring programme like the one I manage, that accepts new male lecturers transitioning into the role, does not work in opposition to other pre-existing mentoring programmes designed to advance the number of academic women in senior roles.  It’s a good question, and one worth considering. We are hopefully all aware now of the gender imbalance in academia and the persistent gender pay gap — one of the reasons for the recent UCU industrial action, so supporting women to succeed is an issue for everyone.

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But mentoring men, simply is not the opposite of mentoring women, because the workplace changes that we need to bring about are not about men-vs-women, and people development is not about pitching those genders in opposition to each other to fight over finite resources and support. This women or men dichotomy isn’t helpful, because it creates blame, conflict and ultimately resistance to change if one side feels it’s losing so the other can gain. To advance equality, we need to think about shaping the future research culture to support all genders equally. And importantly at the highest levels of academia, the research culture is predominantly male.

Effecting a culture change is going to have minimal impact if we focus on changing only the smallest proportion of that culture – the individual women. There’s also the argument then, that we are simply equipping women to behave like men, in a man’s world, and making no real progress in recognising diversity and embedding change. Further, we need organisational policies and structures that have traction in driving equality at work. Athena SWAN has had a fantastic amount of traction with this because if you don’t address inequality you can’t get some other resources (money) too.

It’s my opinion that we need to add to this the responsibility to think carefully about changing the attitudes and behaviours of that predominant, collectively male culture, who often have responsibility for making decisions about the career advancement of academic women.

Perhaps you are now, like I was a few years ago, charged with designing an inclusive mentoring programme for ECRs, and one that aligns with and does not work to oppose the outcomes of pre-existing mentoring programmes for women? In the early stages of scoping the ECR mentoring programme my research showed a clear need, and demand, for support for men and women transitioning into academic roles.

Below are some of my developing thoughts on how building a programme that does not exclude new male lecturers could enhance and promote the change of culture needed to level the playing field for women to advance into senior roles. Because male lecturers do not work in isolation and if they are having a hard time at work, perhaps the people around them are too? They have direct contact and influence on the women they meet as colleagues and undergraduate and postgraduate students. They also act as role models for male colleagues, and male UG and PG students.

Mentoring for new male lecturers where the mentors are senior women:

Direct mentoring benefit to new lecturers (indeed expected for all mentee genders):

  • Adjustment to new environment and new role expectations and work identity;
  • Help to overcome insecurity-driven imposter syndrome and associated negative impact of overcompensation (arrogance);
  • Give new appointments a channel to be able to ask for help and be vulnerable;
  • Increased networking beyond the department, access to alternative research cultures;
  • Self-awareness, interpersonal, and leadership development;
  • Prioritisation, planning, and management development;
  • Access to diverse perspectives and opinions.

Indirect impact on others in the new lecturer’s wider professional networks:

  • Planning for first-time teaching load management;
  • Teaching & learning best practice and approaches,;
  • Balancing research/teaching with taking on administrative and pastoral roles;
  • Reflection on approach to supervision;
  • Recruitment, induction and mentorship of PGRs and ECRs.

Alignment with other mentoring programmes that exist to advance academic women:

  • If senior women are the mentors they act as role models to mentees, and help to develop junior colleagues who have listened to the perspectives of women, and have been guided from a senior female perspective;
  • We can enhance existing approaches (via mentoring and coaching initiatives) that help women to say ‘no’ to the uneven burden of administrative and pastoral tasks, by helping men to understand the need to say ‘yes’ to these roles.
  • Some depts. do not have many female academics and would have limited personal contact with senior women. Mentoring would broker these diverse interactions.

Theoretically then, a programme encouraging junior men to be mentored by senior women could be instrumental in effecting culture change by making senior women visible and normal in academia. In creating a formal mentoring structure where women are seen as senior, we legitimize diverse interactions that would otherwise be less likely to occur.

So what might challenge this ideal? As well as the logistics of there simply being more new male lecturers than senior women, a further potential criticism is that we enter the problematic territory of seeming to be asking women to do the work in order to educate men on gender-related issues. I do not want to suggest that it should somehow be the sole responsibility of women to deal with gender equality education. It shouldn’t be.

In terms of the hours input/workload issue, taken in the context of the whole ECR mentoring programme (in which men also mentor men and women, and women mentor women) I don’t believe it would be a disproportional burden to women.  I’m not saying all new male lecturers should have a mentor, just those who seek one. Which brings me to…

Perhaps having self-selected participants will mean that the most problematic predominant attitudes and cultures aren’t vastly impacted. As with so many development activities, the people who ‘need’ it most are the ones who don’t sign up. Would some men be (outspokenly or implicitly) put off joining a programme where they didn’t have a choice over the gender of their mentor.

I don’t know the answer to a lot of these questions and this post is not intended to detail a quick-fix for redefining academic gender balance. More, I wanted to put some thought into how move away from the men-vs-women idea, and think about how multiple approaches could align to create change. I am keen to learn by hearing more perspectives, including those that agree and disagree with this piece.