July 31, 2020

Not All Mentors

By Kate Perry and Tobias T. Gibson

Recognition of the imbalance between men and women in the academy is not new. We have known for more than a decade that although women constitute a majority of undergraduate students, women in political science Ph.D. programs have continued to lag. We also know that women scholars in the related field of security studies are three times less likely to always feel welcome at a major academic conference. Relatedly, academic conferences have been criticized for their lack of family care and the continued practice of gendered harassment.

Purposeful mentoring of women by men may help women overcome some of the inequalities we’ve just described. A male mentor can open professional doors for female mentees, even in undergraduate studies, and may have authority to impact and alter environments once they have “recognized that their values were not always shared by others in their organizations,” as a Harvard Business Review article notes. Certainly, such changes may not come easily, and mentors may need “courage and persistence in order to overcome resistance to gender inclusiveness even in their own teams and peer groups.”

But mentor relationships between men and women can provide academic and workplace advantages that bolster overall academic and career success. A Gallup-Purdue Index study (now the Strada-Gallup Alumni Study) found that “having such a mentor more than doubled a graduate’s odds of being engaged in their work and thriving in their overall well-being.” This promising level of return on investment makes it even more crucial that male mentors go the extra mile to engage in mentorships of women that help to dismantle the deeply embedded patriarchal structures that have created such hurdles for women in political science as well as other disciplines.

We should also note as well that women academics of color are the most at risk for leaving the sciences along the “leaky pipeline” and therefore illustrate the added burden of juggling intersecting and marginalized identities in our competitive field. Our own mentor and mentee experience, which has spanned more than a decade, is the story of two white academics, and we recognize that it has certainly included privileges along the way that are built into our racial identities.

This essay won’t provide a complete blueprint to successful mentorship, but we hope it will serve as a success story and perhaps a loose guide for both mentors and mentees in the future. We encourage mentors and mentees to:

Work together as equals. There’s no way around the innate power imbalance between mentor and mentee, but a successful partnership requires that both people use that imbalance to the best of their advantage. For the male mentor, this means being proactive in treating the female mentee as a scholarly equal, especially within public, professional academic settings.