I have great summer student. She was a student of mine at my previous institution and came to do research in my current lab for her summer internship. On her first day I was really busy and sorry I didn’t have time to do much more than set her up with her training, so I said, “Why don’t I take you out to lunch tomorrow?” I thought it would be a good chance to catch up and get to know her better. So we went out and got to chat about what was going on in her life and she asked me a lot more about my career history. It was great, and exactly what I would hope for from a mentor-mentee relationship.
And then, because I always love over-analyzing things as a gender-based thought experiment, I wondered how this would be different if our genders were different. Could taking a student out to lunch to get to know them better be perceived as inappropriate if my student was male? Probably not, but it would almost certainly be less comfortable for me and probably for the student. What if I was male and my student was female? That gave me pause. Of course this one event was within the bounds of normal mentoring, but I could see the potential for something like this to make a student uncomfortable or to be the beginning of a series of problematic events where the power differential* makes it difficult for the student to say no to increasingly line-crossing interactions.
Should I be okay with behavior that I don’t see a problem with in one gender combination, if I do see it as a potential problem with a different gender? The image above is an extreme example (since everything Leslie Knope does is extreme and awesome), but there are many things that can seem not noteworthy coming from women that would never be acceptable from men.
On the one hand, I think it is even more important for women to get close and mentor other women to help them overcome the obstacles we continue to face. However, when I think about a man mentoring another man [preferentially], it makes me feel like the old boys club is being perpetuated. Is it fair to think that one is essential and the other should be avoided, as long as there is an imbalance in the field?
Further, why should the line be drawn in a different place for me as a female mentor than for a male mentor? Should I hold myself to the same standards and distance that I would expect from a man?
There are certainly ways male and female mentors may have different benefits, for either female or male mentees, and for this among many reasons, it is advisable for a student to try to have several mentors. But what should a mentor take into consideration for his or her interactions with different trainees? How does one give each student the mentoring they need or deserve without favoritism, and is it possible to support stronger relationships between more similar people without perpetuating the existing hierarchy?
I’m really asking! What do you think?
*I’m not factoring sexual orientation into the equation here, mostly because the focus is on gender-based power differentials, and I’m trying not to consider sexual or romantic circumstances; I do recognize that people who are not heterosexual or cisgender may have even greater cause for worry or discomfort when presented with unclear lines in social situations related to the workplace.