Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Do-It-Yourself Mentoring


Do-it-yourself mentoring sounds like an oxymoron, but the idea is that women can find mentors in not-obvious places if they look around.  Here are a few stories of life experiences from women in my family on finding mentoring and getting inspired.  In general, the lack of adequate role models and mentors can be a significant factor in hindering women scientists in their careers.   Starting in childhood, girls will typically find fewer scientists or engineers of their gender in their families to look up to than boys do.  This can be a serious impediment to considering science as a career since family experience plays a huge role in influencing our directions.  Later in life, women will see fewer female scientists in senior positions as examples to strive for.  The situation is improving with every year, but there are still challenges.

Extended family and friends can give a pool of role models outside the immediate family.  TV can also help.  My wife found a few successful women to look up to on television in her formative early years.  In my family, my mother went back to school while us kids were growing up and greatly inspired my younger sister.

In school, interactions with particular teachers and students can be quite important.  While in college, my sister-in-law heard about a woman doing exciting field work in geology who needed a research assistant.  She got the job and became hooked on geology.  My wife had an excellent chemistry teacher in high school who got her interested in science.  He was opened minded and was a role model for many boys and girls.  The important points were that he enjoyed chemistry, made it seem relevant and fun, and believed in the ability of his students of both genders to succeed.  In this case, a man was a fine role model even for the girls. 

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In graduate school, my wife was one of the small group of women students at Caltech and there were no women on the science and engineering faculty.  She found a good way to go by joining one of the few groups with women graduate students.  In fact, the female students tended to be found in clumps throughout the university.  This provided immediate excellent mentors in the older students.  She now wonders if it was the women who attracted each other to the group or if it was topic of the group (a new and growing field, surface physics, in her case) that was of particular interest to women.

After starting a career, men have lots of people to look up to, not to mention the old boys network to give support.  It is harder for women, but casting a wider net can do the trick.  The "new girls' networks" tend to be from larger groups of universities and across departments, instead of within a department.  There are actually some advantages to such a broad group in that women get to know colleagues in different areas and different institutions.

The bottom line is that it is harder for women to find mentors, but a little ingenuity can get the job done.   The women who succeed have the benefit of a wider group of contacts and more flexible approach.