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  • How mentoring can help women scientists

Mentoring helps women build careers in science, and helps science get the best out of women, says social psychologist Tineke Willemsen.

Mentoring is one of the most effective ways to help women's careers — it is cheap, and relatively easy to implement. And it can work in almost all circumstances as it's not much more than regular contact between two people. Everyone has something to offer as a mentor, and everyone can benefit from mentoring.

Mentoring is, quite simply, the relationship in which an experienced colleague supports someone less experienced, advising on careers and personal development.

What's in it for women?

Women meet more career barriers in science than men do. It is often more difficult for women to access a good education; there are generally fewer role models; and the 'old-boy networks' that can be so important in hiring processes are difficult for women to use.

Support from mentors can help women overcome these barriers. Now that technology and science are so important for development, it is not only unfair but economically unwise to give fewer chances to women — the best of both male and female scientists are needed for development.

Studies comparing mentored and un-mentored employees consistently show its positive effects.

Mentored women and men gain higher salaries and more upward mobility after a few years. They also report some subjective advantages, such as higher career commitment, more job satisfaction and lower work-family stress.

Organisations benefit too — from lower turnover, more satisfied and committed employees, quicker integration of new employees into the organisation, and a better transfer of organisational culture (written and unwritten rules and values).

What it means to mentor

Mentoring should be confidential: mentor and mentee must feel free to express themselves and discuss problems with full confidentiality. Nothing should be reported to others without the explicit agreement of both parties.

Mentoring is also voluntary: both mentor and mentee are free to end the relationship without negative consequences for either of them. So a mentor can't be the mentee's supervisor or a project leader.

A mentor helps prepare someone for the next step in her career. One example is sponsoring — helping her make contacts, and introducing her to other professionals in the mentor's own professional networks.

Coaching is another example of supporting women by teaching the 'tricks of the trade' and providing constructive feedback on their work. A mentor can help build the mentee's profile — putting her forward for positions in committees, for example, or as a speaker at a conference.

And a mentor gives psychological support, strengthening self confidence by offering acceptance and respect. Moral support, positive feedback or advice can help her through professional or personal dilemmas.

And finally, a mentor has a positive influence simply by being a role model: demonstrating with their own work what is important to do, and which attitude and abilities one needs to advance in the field.

So being a mentor does not mean providing specialist knowledge. It's more about procedural and social knowledge: how to find your way in the organisation or in a professional society; who you should know; which group you should join; where to apply for a grant.

Make the most of mentoring

In most cultures, mentoring is a natural way for people to support others and occurs spontaneously — and informal mentoring is often more effective than formal, institutional programmes.

But when organisations do establish a mentoring programme, it is crucial that both mentors and mentees have input in the matching process and are given some training in what to expect.

A successful mentoring relationship needs to start with an open and clear discussion to reach agreement about the mentee's goals, as well as mutual expectations about how often to meet, the form and content of these meetings, and what is and isn't confidential.

And both parties must want to make the relationship work. The mentor must be willing to do their best for the mentee, and the mentee to learn from the mentor.

Do women scientists benefit more from male or female mentors? This depends on the situation.

There are advantages to having a woman mentor. For example, it may be easier for a woman to be a role model for another woman.

Women mentors will better-understand the barriers women scientists encounter in their careers. And the relationship is often more relaxed because the risk of inappropriate intimacy — real or just suggested in gossip — is low.

But there are also advantages to being a woman scientist with a male mentor. In general, men still have more power and influence than women in organisations, making them more effective for the career advancement of mentees. And more men than women hold senior positions, so more men tend to be available as mentors.

There are wider benefits too. Through mentoring, male scientists learn about the barriers women encounter in their careers, especially about work-family issues and gender prejudice. This helps senior scientists — often men — realise where specific interventions are necessary to give women a fair chance in an organisation.

In this way mentoring, a low-cost intervention to support women's careers, offers benefits that reach beyond the women being mentored.

Tineke Willemsen is a former professor of work and gender psychology at Tilburg University, the Netherlands, and is now chair of the Board of Supervisors at Aletta Institute for Women's History, in Amsterdam.

This article is part of a Spotlight on Overcoming gender barriers in science.