Do the same rules apply to all genders as mentors?

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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.

6 responses so far

  • I usually stick to coffee (or non-alcoholic beverage of choice) outings instead of lunch, since it is easier to quickly escape (for either party) if the interaction is too awkward. Also less loaded with friendship/relationship overtones. I have taken both male and female students out for coffee for mentoring conversations and had it go well.

    I keep a bit of distance between myself and my students. I am there for them at work, and we have one-on-one conversations, but we don't socialize much outside of work related functions. It is a style I am comfortable with, and tends to mean that I have primarily professional relationships with all of my students. I try to treat everyone fairly, but that does not mean they all get equal time, simply because people need what they need, and different people need different things from a mentor. This is actually something that has transitioned over from being a parent--my kids don't need the same things all the time, so treating them identically is not the same thing as treating them fairly.

    I do my best to be a good mentor to all of my students, but I think it is human nature to connect to some people more than others. It is important that the mentor is aware of this tendency, and provides as equal opportunities as possible for things like fellowships, conferences, introductions to other scientists, and other professional development things. It is not anyone's fault if you don't click with a mentee personally, but I think that is only a problem if it leads to have and have nots in the group.

    • sweetscience says:

      Excellent response - thanks for your perspective! I especially appreciate " is human nature to connect to some people more than others. It is important that the mentor is aware of this tendency, and provides as equal opportunities as possible for things like fellowships, conferences, introductions to other scientists, and other professional development things."

  • Anon says:

    I (male mentor) work with a female postdoc that is shared 50/50 with a female professor at a neighboring institution. This has been a good arrangement because there are elements of mentoring regarding career, work-life balance, and life trajectory that I am just not equipped to provide mentorship for. I have also had a male postdoc 100% with me and felt more comfortable providing a wider scope of mentoring. In both cases, we have talked science and some personal topics over coffee, lunch, beers and it wasn't uncomfortable or inappropriate (by the standards of a reasonable person's judgement).

    I am going to adopt a few lines of ProdigalAcademic's philosophy, because that really was a comment section gold answer.

  • Anonymous says:

    Completely concur with Prodigal Academic. And yes, if you can't see yourself taking out your male mentees to lunch, then I would advise you not to do it with your female mentees either. There are likely other females that your female student can approach for that kind of mentoring (i.e., outside of her immediate work environment).

    As a woman in a male-dominated STEM field, what I need most is equal treatment for all when it comes to mentoring. I would happily forego special bonding with other women if other (more senior) men treated me like they treat other junior males. (And I mean in terms of treating me fairly when it comes to professional opportunities; I agree w/Prodigal that it's not possible to treat everyone identically.)

  • Namnezia says:

    That is why, as a mentor, I never take my mentees individually to lunch, coffee or whatever. I keep a professional distance and am happy to talk with them as much as they want/need but only within the work environment. Chummy chummy relationships (ie lunch) with some mentees and not others only breeds resentment and awkwardness. The only time we socialize is when we have events for the entire lab. Might be lame/bad mentoring on my part, but it is what I'm most comfortable with.

  • anon says:

    I think I prefer rare whole-group events outside of lab for big milestones, going away dinners, that sort of thing. The only time I've had one-on-one lunches or dinners or whatever with my advisors/mentors has been as a sort of conference post-mortem while we were the only members of the group attending. In all of those cases it has been after more than a year working with the person, so respectful personal boundaries have been well established (I'm a woman and advisors mostly have been men) and it's clear the dinner is not a sign of favoritism. So I think one-on-one socializing can be done, but must be done carefully.

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