This article was originally written for the Society for Women in Philosophy, Ireland. It discussed the importance of mentoring in the academic environment (specifically, the importance of mentoring for women pursuing graduate study in Philosophy). Many of the insights are applicable more broadly, especially as we consider the gendered dimensions of workplace leadership.
Confidence and self-belief are two issues perennially a problem for young women in the workplace. From an early age we are socialized to hold back before pushing forward and to please others before promoting ourselves. When journalist and philosophy graduate Carol Hunt made the decision to run for General Election in March 2015, she described in her campaign blog how this socialisation had translated in her case to a “niggling voice” at the back of her head. This voice announced that she was “ridiculous” to even contemplate such an ambitious step, that she was “pushy” and “power-mad”, that she was, of all cardinal sins, “getting completely carried away with herself”.
Part of the problem faced by Hunt and others, of course, is the lack of female role models in the contemporary political space. Without a clear picture of successful women in our chosen professional fields – versions of ourselves five, ten and twenty years from now – it can be difficult to maintain the kind of vision and momentum that is needed for progression in any career.
In academic philosophy this problem is particularly acute. In what is referred to in the discourse as “the leaky pipe problem”, more and more women leave philosophy at graduate and early career stages. Fewer and fewer teach philosophy at undergraduate and graduate levels; fewer and fewer act as visible role models for younger women coming up. In Ireland, particularly, the number of female academics holding permanent academic posts in departments of philosophy is shockingly low (it was twelve at last count). Positive change is definitely in motion but it will take a while.
This is why mentoring is so important for young women in philosophy. Our young women need mentoring for at least the following reasons:
- They need advice on all the practical things. Feedback on the intellectual content of M.A. or Ph.D. research is one thing, but there are a host of little questions that nobody answers unless you ask. Should I teach in the first or the final year of my Ph.D.? What’s the value exactly of giving a conference paper? Which journals should I target for publication?
- They need you to make connections for them. Linking graduate students with others pursuing similar research projects, or early career academics with important figures in their field, can be hugely heartening for all involved. In the best case scenarios these links become the foundation for life-long working relationships.
- They need inspiration. Again, the importance of visible role models cannot be underestimated. It is imperative that young women see older women in positions of power.
- They need affirmation and encouragement. Any graduate student or early career academic will tell you that the most challenging aspect of individual research is motivation and self-belief. Again the niggling voices return (“your work is derivative”/“your students hate you”/“your hair is a state”).
- And finally, they need to hear stories of failure. That we are made aware of success is of course important but it’s even more important that we are reminded of fallibility.
How might this work?
Mentoring is usually thought of as an association between two people, a relationship between an established mentor and her younger protégé. These one-on-one encounters work particularly well given the requirements of sensitivity, of intimacy and of trust. Of course, resources of the more established figure are at issue here. There is surely a limit to what full-time female academics can and should be expected to do for their younger colleagues. While the best mentor-mentee relationships see the abilities of both parties energised and renewed, this can only be achieved against a background of shared expectation and mutual respect.
A professional network, in which different needs are met by different people, is another form for academic mentoring to take. Young women in philosophy should be encouraged to build networks of this kind, to develop their own grab-bag collective of advisors and personal support. This particular mentoring model has the added advantage of being more democratic. The more people involved in the mentoring process the less likely it is for relationships of unequal power to take hold.
And finally, there is the possibility of peer mentoring. While it is crucial to have senior female academics to look up to it is just as important to have figures at your own career stage – graduate, early-career or mid-career – to relate to and model yourself on. In my own experience, these peer mentor relationships are an absolute lifeline.
These lessons from academia are certainly applicable to the workplace. Young female graduates taking up their first professional position need practical advice, a positive word in helping them to develop connections, inspiration from successful working women, plenty of affirmation and encouragement, and plenty of honesty when it comes to success and failure. Professional women doubt themselves, professional women make mistakes, professional women deal with rejection after rejection – and they still survive and flourish. It’s hugely important that we make this failure more visible.
Similarly, those progressing to the next stage of their professional careers benefit hugely from the positive presence of more senior women. The development of informal networks can be just as important as the attendance at formal training or professional development workshops. At the end of the day, these personal connections are key. We all need somebody to take an interest in ourselves as well as our work, to make us stand a bit taller and to remind us that it can all definitely be done. When it comes to workplace mentoring – no matter what form it takes – we all have so much to gain.
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