Women in Science
Role models, mentors and sponsors
People often compare themselves with individuals or groups of people who occupy the social role to which they aspire. A person's chosen role models may make a considerable impact on early career researchers. Role models that provide support and inspiration can be important throughout a person’s career. Role models are likely to be present from early childhood – several women we talked to told us that their own mothers had interesting and demanding careers. School teachers were also often a strong influence (see ‘Deciding on a career in science’). Some women said that they would have liked to have had more exposure to senior women in their field or speciality. Helen A described her department where all the clinical seniors were men, and the junior members of staff were predominately women. In her department the leading methodologists (statisticians, social scientists) are more evenly gender balanced. Kristina has reflected on how much easier her path has been because of the women that came before her and thinks there has been unfair expectations of them because there were so few. Alison N thinks good role models are important but found it difficult that there was no obvious model of how she could go part time in her department because she was the first academic to have children.
In China Xin had worked at an institute where half of the principal investigators were women; she had never seen gender as an issue. Eleanor’s field is hepatology, where her role models have all been men.
Role models did not have to be women – inspiration came from people who women respected and had interests outside work. Catherine had worked in a department where her male colleagues talked about their home life and made it clear that they were highly engaged with their families as well as their work. Lucy commented that some of the senior women scientists she had known were not people she would want to identify with - and she did not want to emulate how these women behaved. Bryony and Helen A both said that they had met women who were committed scientists and engaged parents and found their approaches inspiring.
Mentorship can take many different forms and there is an overlap with coaching and sponsorship. The benefits of mentoring can be wide-ranging, for example a systematic review of quantitative studies that looked at mentoring in academic medicine, found that women reported that mentoring had an important influence on their personal development, career choice, and productivity, including publication and grant success [Sambunjak et al 2006]. The key aspects of mentoring the women we talked to include being given the encouragement and confidence to write papers, apply for grants or fellowships, support with career planning and decision-making, ’being allowed to sound off’ and having someone you trust. Charlotte said being an academic can be lonely so it was good to have someone you can turn to.
Some women had mentors who were senior members of their department. Others had peer mentors or took part in group mentoring within newer University schemes. The University (https://www.learning.ox.ac.uk/resources/mentoring/), the Medical Sciences Division (http://www.medsci.ox.ac.uk/research/resources-for-researchers/) and many individual departments at Oxford now have a formal mentoring scheme either for specific groups of staff or for all within the department.
Some were mentors themselves and hoped that they were doing it well. Eleanor said students were ‘very well nurtured’ during her degree and postgraduate studies and she tries to look after her students in the same way. Training for women who want to become mentors is available through the Springboard Programme and some individual departments.
Several women talked about unofficial mentors, who were sometimes also their Head of Department, or had been their doctoral supervisors. Alison E said she has had ‘very supportive’ people along the way who have helped her. Amy described how her undergraduate tutor ‘always encouraged us to go on whatever academic intellectual direction we wished to, while making sure we kept on point to get through the exercise that was our finals’. She thinks the key is to get yourself a great mentor; ‘we are the product of the people we work with’.
Some said that they valued the independent advice of an external mentor who knew them well. Irene T explained that she had found that her (female) external mentors offered a different type of support from that given by her head of department.
Several women had mentors who had retired from work, but who still gave useful advice when needed. Some had mentors who had died after retirement, who were clearly much missed, even decades later.
Until recently Christine has had informal male mentors. She has recently signed up to the University group mentoring scheme for postdoc scientists and has had her first meeting with her mentor. She is in a group of four female postdoctoral scientists who will meet this mentor four times over the course of the year. So far it has been helpful.
We also talked to women who were themselves mentors. They said that they enjoyed the role.
Some women had reservations about whether formal mentoring schemes could be as good as their informal support networks. It can be hard to match people’s interests and knowledge. Irene R recognised the importance of informal mentoring. She was concerned that young clinicians may have less access to this type of help than they did in the past because they work shorter hours and no longer work as part of a fixed team.
Lucy would have welcomed more strategic advice about running a research group and leading a team before she became a principal investigator. She lacked confidence in her ideas to ‘push things through’ and was unsure whether the formal mentoring scheme would provide this type of support. Helen B would have liked someone who could have helped her say ‘that’s a bit much’ or ‘you don’t need to do that’ in terms of managing her workload when she was younger. Marian had not had a formal mentor but had worked with people who ‘just trusted’ her and saw her potential. Marella had always enjoyed the informal routes to support through friends and colleagues.
The women we talked to often described themselves as having been very ‘lucky’ in being inspired and supported. They feel that they owe a lot to the supervisors, heads of department and colleagues who recognised their potential. They also gained from their own informal contacts, networks, friends, partners and supporters who encouraged (or even pushed) them to take on new challenges.
A ‘sponsor’ may have a similar role to an informal mentor and are often based in the organisation where the person works. A sponsor may assume a more pro-active role than a mentor and can help to ‘open doors’, provide favourable opinions on an individual and provide new opportunities and professional contacts. Lois said that she had felt that an inspiring woman clinician seemed to care about her and provided opportunities as well as guidance. Barbara said that having people who had encouraged her over the years had been crucial to her career. She described these people as her sponsors rather than mentors. Daniela also highlighted the importance of sponsorship as well as mentorship; someone to encourage you to apply for opportunities. Kay commented that senior men tend to have protégés (who have usually tended to be other men). It is possible that some senior men are wary about sponsoring younger women for fear that their support might be misconstrued as a personal rather than professional interest.
Sambunjak D. et al. (2006) Mentoring in Academic Medicine: A systematic review. JAMA 296 (9)1103-1115