Notre Dame loves to make videos. They are currently working on a series about graduate students’ experiences on campus and I had a meeting with the production company today to discuss one of the videos, a segment focused on (grad)student-faculty interaction. As great as the meeting was, I left feeling incredibly discouraged about the state of (grad)student-faculty interaction and wondering what, if anything, can be done to change it.
As many scatterplot readers likely know, some of my research over the past few years has been on grad students. In studying things like impostorism and perceptions of work-life balance, I’ve thought a lot about mentoring and the role that faculty play in graduate students’ experiences, expectations, and aspirations. One thing that I found that is consistent with previous work in the area is that men get more (and more effective) mentoring than their women counterparts, particularly when they have mentors who are also men. It’s not a gender difference in mentoring skills (e.g., that men are just better mentors), it’s related to the types of interaction that men have with other men. Men are more likely to invite one another out for a drink, to carpool to the airport, to linger in the lobby of a conference hotel late at night, or to play on the same intramural basketball team. It is in these informal encounters, although under the guise of socializing or just hanging out, that important differences in mentoring emerge. When students see faculty outside of work, they not only get more time with them, they also get a more complete picture of those faculty as people. They are also more likely to be exposed to their network connections and in fluid, less forced ways. On the other side of the exchange, the faculty get a better sense of who the students are and their interests. This better equips the faculty to help those students and to guide and mentor them on the students’ own terms.
As I was telling some of this to the video producer today, he got all excited. It turns out that an interview with a graduate student had turned up something similar. The student had been talking about how great it was that he and his advisor played on the same soccer team on campus. Interestingly, this tidbit didn’t come from an interview for the “(grad)student-faculty interaction” video like mine. It was for the “student life” video in the series. This was telling. As long as we work on creating gender (or race or class or another dimension of inequality) parity in formal mentoring situations (i.e., what many think of as (grad)student-faculty interaction it seems) and ignore the effects of the informal mentoring (perhaps because we think of it as just a neutral, insignificant part of the “life” of students and faculty), the gender differences in mentoring and related outcomes will continue.
That’s not the most discouraging part, though. As I walked back to my office, I thought of a young woman who I was talking to about my research a couple weeks ago. She asked me what she could do. How could she facilitate the informal mentoring if she didn’t play sports or felt that it would be seen as inappropriate if she went out for lunch–let alone drinks or dinner–with her male advisor? She desperately wanted the same benefits that she saw her male colleagues reaping and wanted my help. I didn’t have an answer, but I am hoping that maybe some of you will.