Are You My Mentor? Seeking Female Role Models in Higher Ed

Leslie Knope: Ladies celebrating ladies.  It’s like Lilith Fair minus the angst.

This story was not written by Dr. Seuss. Instead, it is my telling of the relentless saga of finding a suitable mentor in my first year of graduate school. Spoiler alert: I’m still and will always be looking for the next great female mentor to add to my collection of inspiring women.

For much of my life, I’ve had great mentoring experiences. I grew up with fantastic and supportive parents. Both of them were true feminists, even if they did not claim the title. My parents had an unbelievably loving set of friends that loved my sister and me like family. I attended a major flagship university in my home state for my undergraduate degree, and found even more women with whom I could connect. Then, I went to law school at a smaller, private university. The nature of legal education resulted in the gender gap widening, but I still was able to build strong relationships with female faculty and practitioners in the surrounding area. I was and am so lucky to have each and every one of them. I had no shortage of strong, focused women to bounce ideas off of or to provide me with sage advice.

After law school, I decided to pursue a PhD concentrating in civil rights law at a different flagship university in a neighboring state. I expected this program to be more of the same. I did not expect gender parity, since I read the department website and I was familiar with the major faculty in my subfield. I knew they were not women. My new department is one of the largest departments in my field in the country. Within the department itself, we are split further into seven subfields, and there are around fifty tenure track professors total. I can count on my fingers how many professors in the entire department are women. There are none in my subfield. For the first time in my life, I’ve found myself without a female role model.

This is not to say that some of the men in our department do not serve as fantastic mentors to female students. I have an unbelievably supportive faculty advisor in my subfield that is as helpful as he can be on any issue I bring to him. But it is not enough. There are things women experience in graduate school that cannot always be discussed with male faculty members in a way that is as meaningful. Questions about family planning and work-life balance are sometimes better answered by someone who has faced similar pressures and contemplated similar decisions.

Also, an important caveat: political science as a field has a huge diversity problem, and an equally huge gender parity problem. I want to emphasize that this is not just a symptom of my university, but of academia in general. I left a life of working in southern law firms and I have never experienced such strained gender dynamics as when I started my PhD. Yes, you read that right.

So what could I do? One option was just to go with the flow, keep my head down, do my work, and pray things got better. But as anyone who knows me could predict, that is not what I did. Instead, I teamed up with a friend who was a few years ahead of me in our program, Maraam (check her out, she does great things on interest group politics!). It started one night with what I hoped would be a Leslie Knope-approved Galentine’s Day party I hosted at my apartment. This was originally meant to be a simple “wine night.” It started at seven, but soon turned into an all-nighter. Several bottles of wine later, Maraam and I had a plan: in the following weeks, we would work to create a space for facilitating mentorships between our limited faculty members, but also between female graduate students themselves.

We based this group on a model another mentor of mine, Susan, curated for women working in higher education. We modified the model to work for our purposes, set a date, sent out the publicity, got a panel of speakers, made some cupcakes, and set to work. Our first meeting was slated to last one hour. It went for over double that time. It was immediately clear to Maraam and me that this was a needed programming addition. The women who attended this first meeting were almost desperate for answers to questions every woman in the academy faces: “how can I get a male classmate to stop interrupting me?” “how do I develop a classroom persona that is authoritative but does not hurt my evaluations?” etc. We will continue to grow the program in the next few years and plan to ultimately cultivate a lasting and institutionalized space that will remain even after we have moved forward.

So as it turns out, I am still one of the lucky ones. I’ve found that my fellow students can be my best supporters, allies, and yes, mentors. My advice for others seeking mentorship, regardless of your current position (professor, student, professional, president, etc.), is to follow my mother’s favorite rule: “You have to be a friend to have a friend.” Feeling the void of female mentorship like I felt? It might be time to take charge of your situation. Be a mentor for someone else, and work toward creating the kind of intentional and supportive climate you crave. It’s worth it.

Christine is a PhD student in the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin.