Bosom buddies

June 12, 1998

The intellectual intimacy of the student-supervisor relationship between women raises issues we need to address, says Celia Kitzinger

Most women academics of my generation had male supervisors, some of whom (as in my own case) did their job well. But we all know other promising women students who received perfunctory and inadequate supervision from men who thought doctorates a waste of time for wives and mothers; or who were subjected to sexual harassment that destroyed their working relationships.

Many women supervisors are committed to developing more egalitarian models of supervision. But the intense one-to-one relationship between students and supervisor, extending over at least three years, makes it unlike any other kind of university teaching. The supervisory role is both intensely personal and profoundly unequal - a potentially explosive combination. Its intensity is sometimes conveyed by comparing it to a marriage.

If that metaphor works at all, it is through its image of an exclusive student-supervisor pair devoted to intellectual intimacy. But the roles implied have often been those of a very traditional marriage, between a powerful male supervisor and a subservient female student.

An alternative metaphor for the supervisory relationship between women also draws on a family relationship - that of mother and daughter. This imagery pervades Adrienne Rich's plea for a "woman-centred university" in which older women express "concern for the wholeness of their young women students". In the quarter century since her essay, many more women have moved into a position to "mother" their female students - with mixed success, and mixed feelings about the results.

Women seeking women supervisors often speak of the quality of validation and support only a woman can offer. In practice, this is sometimes translated into an expectation that a woman supervisor will be endlessly available, willing to intercede on a woman's behalf at every administrative hiccup. As Diane Richardson, reader in sociology at Sheffield University, points out: "I think women do a lot more after-hours care of students than men do, and that makes the university a very different place for women."

Motherhood imagery also tends to infantilise students and presents supervisors as all-powerful. While we demonstrate through our own example that it is possible to overcome the barriers put in women's paths, we do not have the enormous powers our students sometimes imagine, either to protect them against the system or to advance their careers within it. In a university system in which only 17 per cent of senior lecturers/readers and a mere 8.5 per cent of professors are women, we are often bitterly conscious of our own relatively subordinate place in the university hierarchy.

The expectations students bring to the relationship often go well beyond the formal academic sphere. One woman asked me to be her supervisor because, she said, I was a wonderful role model of a strong woman. While sincerely meant, such idealisations impose daunting obligations. Behind the admiration lies the unanswerable (and terrifying) question: "How can I be YOU?" If we collude with these flattering images of ourselves, we risk having students' adulation erupt into furious disappointment when they discover their idols have feet of clay.

Emphasising the collaborative nature of the student-supervisor relationship rather than the power dynamic within it, some women academics draw on another familial metaphor: sisterhood. "I needed support, but I didn't want a mother," says Helen Malson, recently awarded her doctorate and now lecturing at the University of East London. "I wanted something more like an older sister - someone who had been where I wanted to go, knew what it was like and could show me the way." Miriam Zukas of Leeds University, however, warns against obscuring power differentials. "If it's sisterhood, she's a little sister and you should never forget the institutional weight behind the relationship."

Sisterhood has its dangers. Some feminist students expect supervisors to accept political fervour as a substitute for scholarly rigour and are mortified when supervisors use their power to criticise work. Some female supervisors in male-dominated departments where their work is dismissed by colleagues may be tempted to seek intellectual friendship and solace from their students.

For many female student-supervisor pairs the experience is a resounding success. But the relationship can go badly wrong. In the United States flamboyant feminist literary theorist Jane Gallop was accused of sexually harassing two lesbian students (see box). More recently, complaints from students about British feminist supervisors have been widely discussed.

Marital, maternal and sisterhood images all reflect the intimacy that is key to the successful supervision process. But how far should this intimacy go? As a lesbian supervisor of lesbian students, I sometimes find that I have just answered someone's question about how to come out with a coming-out story of my own or disclosed information about a relationship with a lover. One of my students is doing research on women's pleasure in heterosexual sex; another, on women's feelings about their vaginas; a third, on lesbians' experiences of cervical smears. It is impossible to discuss research topics without both of us revealing our own attitudes and experiences. When it goes well, this kind of discussion is animated by the shared exploration that is the hallmark of good feminist research. But it goes far beyond the conventional bounds of formal academic interaction and carries personal and professional risks in the context of a heterosexist university with institutionalised power imbalances.

A recent doctoral researcher, Bruna Seu, now at Brunel University, describes the relationship with her supervisor: "Sometimes we were confidantes, and the supervisor was a fragile little thing we had to help. At other times she would insist on her own institutional power. It was terribly confusing. If I'd been working with a man, I'd have been prepared for this, but because she was a feminist it was difficult."

As Helen Malson says: "There's a danger of idealising feminist supervisors as perfect human beings." When feminists behave badly the outrage is in direct proportion to the idealisation that precedes it. A feminist supervisor who allegedly develops "too personal" a relationship with her students attracts widespread condemnation while a male supervisor who has sex with his female research students often passes almost without comment.

Overestimating our power as academics, students often forget the constraints we experience as women. Several supervisors vehemently reject the sisterhood metaphor: "We might get friendly and share a laugh, but I always remind them 'Remember, I mark your work'." They deliberately eschew behaviour that could be interpreted as false egalitarianism, avoiding the bars their students frequent and the activist groups in which they are involved. Many feminists reject maternal imagery too, with its implications of unconditional love. They reject mumsy behaviours - cooking for students or making solicitous enquiries about their personal lives. These behaviours, they say, "trigger deep expectations that simply cannot be met and imply a kind of love that ought not to be promised".

As feminists we need new images for the relationships we have with students - perhaps supervisor as midwife to the labouring student. Or we could develop the mother-daughter imagery in ways that attend to the realities of women's lives. Woman supervisors, like mothers, are responsible for others in a context in which we ourselves have relatively little power. Like mothers who work outside the home we are torn between the supervisory relationship and other personal and professional commitments. As with mothering, we may have to settle for being "good enough" supervisors.

Celia Kitzinger is reader in lesbian and feminist psychology and director of women's studies at Loughborough University.

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