This year at ACSP, I am participating in a panel on mentoring across differences for white women and younger faculty of color. I’ve been reflecting on the questions that I should ask as moderator. A quick web search reveals lots of resources for the discussion, but I am having trouble getting over my own annoyance. White women are privileged by white skin–there is no denying that–but a lot of the criticism I have seen directed at white women concerns their inability to mentor across difference.
Sometimes, however, you can’t give what you yourself have never received, and I have to say, in my male-dominated world, I’ve encountered two models of senior male-junior female mentoring, both of which are totally freaking whack, and both of which are aligned with the representations of Sarah Palin on one hand and Hillary Clinton on the other:
1) if said younger woman is pleasing and attractive, then there is the proud daddy mentor, who celebrates her every utterance with backflips of joy, just like he greets every properly deposited poo during potty training. While superficially supportive, this person really doesn’t take the younger woman seriously and, thus, undermines her by not fostering depth and development.
2) If said young woman is not pleasing or submissive, then there is the departmental dude who knows he should respect a woman who stands up to him, but who actually hates women that stand up to him. He will spend most of his time making sure that this young woman knows in subtle ways that she is not really secure in her position, and he will second-guess her every decision and encourage her to modify her ambitions downward, always downward, so that she doesn’t reach very far. Her male peers will have “developed” into “fine scholars.” They will always, always decribe her as “developing.” Never quite there, never quite good enough. As a result of not being quite where she needs to be in order to be a real authority, she will be told to keep silent, to keep the peace, and to not be so “divisive”. The undermining here is obvious.
I have certainly had male mentors who are able to get over these problems. But my path is also littered with these two archetypes.
Here’s how men successfully work across difference:
They are both secure and humble. They get that young women face challenges to their authority that they, as men, have not faced, so they listen and work with younger women in the spirit of learning about those obstacles and helping their protege work through strategies that work for them. They also take on the role for advocating change institutionally when the young person is in no position to do so–again with some humility.
In short, don’t assume that your experiences or your understanding of your experiences necessarily mean the same thing across difference.
And don’t expect–and never– ask younger women to be less than they are.