COULD MENTORING HOLD THE KEY TO GENDER EQUALITY IN ACADEMIA?
“When I arrive at an event in heels
and makeup, in a bright dress, I might not be the tweed jacket and leather elbow patched figure of wisdom and authority some people expect” Professor Katy Shaw
Mentoring gaps Mentoring is clearly essential to career progression in general, and may be even more so for females. Initiatives such as Aurora and the Athena SWAN Charter promote the value of mentoring for female academics and many HEIs have also created formal mentoring programmes, with some specifically aimed at women. But with programmes limited to specific areas and certain groups, Katy explains why mentoring approaches must go much further. “I think early career researchers tend to be effectively mentored and cared for by HEIs, to embed them and establish their trajectory and expectations and practices. And this is great, and a wise investment. But after that it gets rather patchy. The mid-career ‘rump’ (as I call it) of colleagues who are maybe one or two big research projects and publications into their careers, but who now are also juggling academic leadership roles in teaching, research or management, are comparatively left in stasis. It’s only when they reach the point of pushing the ceiling of professorship that mentoring sometimes steps in again to help them over the line with their applications for promotion.” “Research mentoring is also often confused with mentoring more generally – it’s great to be given that level of framed support in one area, but it does suggest a value call about where its ‘worth’ developing staff. I would always want to see every colleague with a 360 degree mentor for their own professional development, as well as ones for research in addition to this, and line managers for any more immediate personal issues.” “The best mentoring systems are self-renewing – mentors look after mentees that will themselves go on to mentor others in time – creating a brilliant ecosystem of networking and advancement.”
Change is coming The holistic development that the best mentoring programmes provide can be a valuable tool in defeating barriers to gender equality such as stereotyping. Katy is aware first-hand of how tough it can sometimes be to be taken seriously when you don’t conform to tradition: “If you ask a child what a professor looks like I still worry that they would draw a man with crazy hair in a lab coat. I am very aware that as a woman you get pulled up a lot more for how you look, how you speak, as well as what you say and write. I have had a lot of social media feedback about how I look – when I arrive at an event in heels and makeup, in a bright dress, I might not be the tweed jacket and leather elbow patched figure of wisdom and authority some people expect.” “The first time you encounter a tension like that, it stops you in your tracks. The second time you encounter it, it empowers you. Stereotypes only change when you challenge them by offering new realities, and glass ceilings only break when you keep kicking your heels against them. The degree of resilience that takes is something that mentoring can help with – when you know you’re not the only one knocking your head against this stuff, it makes you aware that it’s more of a team effort, and that change is coming.” Click here to read more about our Inspiring Voices campaign for International Women’s Day and hear more from industry experts on their views and experiences on mentoring.
“It’s that sharing of the plurality of experiences of being a female in a leadership role that is so beneficial.” Northumbria University Professor Katy Shaw on how women might finally smash the glass ceiling.
was assigned a clear line manager and a separate research mentor and was supported in finding independent mentors of my own from beyond the Higher Education Institute (HEI). However, I have been informally mentored by lots of women across my career, although at the time I don’t think we would have seen it as mentoring in that sense.” “Often ‘mentoring’ consisted of a cup of tea and a chat, a debrief over gin or a two-minute pep talk while one of us struggled to change the toner in the photocopier between teaching. But it was all of those snatched moments combined, that led to a real culture of support and sharing of experience and knowledge.” Lessons learned Now a mentor to other women at many levels, both in and outside of Higher Education, Katy believes that all female colleagues should be given the opportunity to learn from a mentor. In her experience, mentoring leads to improved knowledge and practice, and opens up opportunities: “It’s that sharing of the plurality of experiences of being a female in a leadership role that is so beneficial. We all tend to assume that we are the only ones to be encountering a challenge (aka imposter syndrome sometimes), or that things are specific to our industry (this is where external mentoring works a treat), and that issues are there to be overcome in silence as this is a sign of strength. In fact, a problem shared is a massive cross-sector lesson learned, and it’s bringing in experience of similar issues in other industries that can enhance practice and knowledge across the board. The same goes for opportunities too, by sharing and engaging in dialogue we open up chances and advantages rather than closing them down.”
We are at a time in history where there are more female academics in leadership positions than ever before, but despite these gains, inequality persists. Mentoring, along with gender mainstreaming and positive action policies, are common initiatives that are understood to play an important role in helping women build successful academic careers (Powell, 2018). Not all mentoring programmes, however, are created equal and experiences vary widely. Research into academic mentoring is still developing and much more work is needed to understand its long-term effects, particularly its role in institutional change (Meschitti & Smith, 2017). Within this context, we are exploring how the right mentoring approaches can help female academics achieve their full potential. In celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8, we spoke to industry experts across the world to get their views and experiences on mentoring. One of them was Professor Katy Shaw, Professor of Contemporary Writings and Deputy Head of Humanities at Northumbria University, UK. Struck by her passion for mentoring and its role in moving gender equality forward, we wanted to find out more. In our follow up interview featured here, she shares her experiences of being a mentee and now a mentor to female academics. She offers insights on the challenges to gender equality, the benefits/shortcomings of particular mentoring approaches and a burgeoning hope that change is coming. Tea and a chat Katy like other female academics wasn’t formally mentored until years into her career, but the informal mentoring she received along the way has played a vital role in her progression: “It was only really when I arrived at Northumbria [in 2017] that I
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