Obviously pseudos. Alma & Isadora are junior faculty. I mentor both, though their fields/areas of research are not mine. Alma is up for tenure in 2 years. Isadora in 4-5. I love them both. Really. They are my friends, albeit younger ones. They are both funded. Productive. Have a solid number of pubs. Do good teaching. Have responded well to early mentoring suggestions about improvement. I think they will both get tenure. They don’t. I am thoroughly committed to helping them. The world of academics is a better place for both of them in it. Their ability to mentor is just starting, but I see that they will grow into the kind of faculty that will be able to help others.
Grow into. That’s the key word here. They have similar problems, though are in different departments (and know each other vaguely in the way that the relatively small number of junior women know of each other).
I have been trying to put my finger on with what do they exactly need help. The glib answer is that they are so neurotic about tenure that they, caring people in general, have lost sight of what their interactions with others are. They have screwed up in the people part of running their labs. When a departmental admin asst (i.e. secretary person) asked me “are all young female faculty such jerks?”, it became clear to me that this was a situation for which help & mentoring might matter. Angering support staff can impact your career. It can impact your ability to get grants out, to get handouts uploaded for class at the last minute, get purchase orders submitted in a timely fashion.
Why are these women perceived as being somewhat of a pain in the ass? Let’s do Isadora first (I have a sense this will become an ongoing set of posts). Isadora is 1.5 years into her job. She got wretched teaching reviews the first year, and sat down and figured out why and worked her ass off to improve them. She asked me to listen to one of her lectures and offer suggestions. She went to the school-wide teaching mentorship services and talked and listened. And she knocked the teaching ball out of the park the 2nd year. All the time being productive, and having a small grant and writing the big ones.
She hired a tech. It was a disaster. The “chemistry” wasn’t right. This happens. Things went from bad to very bad over 2 months. That also happens. But in her dept, the tech staff are tight. One person is unhappy and tells the others. That’s how the admin staff came to believe that Isadora was a jerk. I don’t want to debate or really even discuss the rights and wrongs of that pathway of communication. What is important is that it exists. At Isadora’s request I stepped in to help mediate at a meeting requested by HR. I was at a meeting that was not a good one. Everyone said inappropriate things. The tech brought up a very personal issue that Isadora had confided. Isadora tried to shut the tech down in the middle of explaining things. Everyone was crying, but not in a good cathartic way, that afterwards everyone joins hands and says I’m sorry. It was a “I hate you, and you are horrible” kind of way. I feel I kept it from being worse, but no one would think it was a success.
The tech needed/did not want to give up the job. Isadora felt the tech was lazy, incompetent and spent her days surfing the web. A couple of things were clear to me after talking to everyone. 1) the tech did not understand what she had done wrong & just wanted to make things “right” so she could keep the job. 2) some of the problems blamed on the tech were things Isadora had done.
The tech finally got another job. My role, now, is to help Isadora not make the same mistake again.
I hate the tenure system. It helps promote and reinforce situations like this. Tenure becomes more important than being a mensch. Success at every step along the way seems to be make it or break it. But just like glamour journals, tenure is not going away any time soon. And mentors need to figure out how to help the untenured.
Telling Isadora to calm down is counter-productive. When I was young (and even now) telling me to calm down would make me apoplectic. (what a lovely word). It was patronizing, condescending and by and large irrelevant. Isadora will listen. I need to find the words and ideas to get to here. This is not easy (for me, at least).
She needs to let go of the tenure anxiety a little bit. She needs to enjoy the path a bit more. She needs to understand that the people around her are people, with their own skills, foibles, strengths, and yes weaknesses.
She also needs (need, need, need…. not a good word) to understand that working with a tech is not a symmetric relationship. I think sometimes that we think about “fairness” too much. This is not about fair. This is about she needs to keep herself at a higher standard of interaction. She may hate being a “boss”, but being friends and equals (and confiding personal things, for example) is not a good idea and doesn’t get the science done.
As little as we may like “traditional formal relationships” there is a utility to them. Early on I had problems being friends with my students who were near my age. What a disaster. There are times when you have to tell someone how to do something, or ask them to get something done. It flows the other way far less (although in a good lab, it can and does). To me this formal does not mean that people who “report to you” are slaves, with no right to respect and consideration. It means that the communication is about what needs to be done. The communication is clear, precise and without emotional overtones.
Feelings about tenure are just that – feelings. Clear and precise instructions, explanations need to be done without the feelings. I think that many men find this easier (but not all) than women.
There is more to this, but I’m just working my way through it.