Leg-up from new-girl network

November 9, 2006

Olga Wojtas reports on the mentoring schemes set up to help women gain confidence and progress in a male-dominated academic world.

Ever wished for someone to turn to for advice when you feel your career has hit the buffers?

A few pioneering universities have set up mentoring schemes to help female academics compete in the still male-dominated environment of higher education.

The unpalatable truth is that, in a sector founded on liberal values, there are few signs that female academics are achieving parity with men more than 30 years after the introduction of sex discrimination legislation.

This summer's gender report from the Scottish Funding Council makes bleak reading and is likely to reflect the situation in the UK as a whole. Less than 5 per cent of female staff are professors, compared with 16 per cent of male staff. And in 2003-04, 14 per cent of professors and 30 per cent of staff with PhDs were women.

From next April, funding bodies will have a statutory duty to promote gender equality. But a number of institutions concerned by the dearth of women in promoted posts have already instituted female-mentoring schemes.

These involve a more experienced academic taking a young colleague under their wing, offering them practical advice and sometimes just listening.

Isabel Turnbull, employer relations manager at Edinburgh University and a mentoring consultant, said mentoring was often confused with coaching. But she said it should be holistic and focused on the mentee's long-term career rather than on a particular job or on technical skills.

"It's about work-life balance, how they're going to progress, how ambitious they need to be. Everyone wants something different. It's not necessarily in your boss's interest that you're wanting to move on and do something else, but it is something a mentor can definitely help with," she said.

Ms Turnbull helped to run one of the UK's first mentoring initiatives for women at Edinburgh in the 1990s. "It was to do with helping women progress.

Some have gone off and been promoted in other universities but kept strong collaborative links."

She defended the concept of female-only mentoring. "The statistics speak for themselves. Women are at the bottom rung, and then the fall-off is huge."

Women in general faced more of a dilemma than men in balancing home and work responsibilities, Ms Turnbull said. This was echoed by Penny Foster, senior staff development adviser at Leeds University, which for ten years has run a personal development programme for female academics.

Women on the programme say they find it easier to discuss issues such as juggling work and home life, assertiveness and dealing with managers in a female-only group. Although this is not a formal mentoring scheme, Ms Foster said that it created informal mentoring networks.

"We have a three-day programme that we tend to run three a year, where women come together to discuss things. The anecdotal feedback is that it gives them the confidence to take responsibility for their development, and I'm sure they find unofficial mentors," she said. "We've had evidence of women going on to other jobs and getting promoted because of the way they have taken control of their career."

The lack of women in senior posts has sometimes been attributed to lack of ambition. But organisers of mentoring schemes argue that if women had no interest in progression, they would not seek mentoring. And what has emerged is women's commitment. This echoes the findings of a recent survey conducted by the Athena Project and the University of East Anglia, which revealed that female scientists were more ambitious than their male counterparts but felt they lacked the support and encouragement needed to progress.

Mentoring is key to giving women that encouragement, said Madeleine Ennis, professor of medicine and therapeutics at Queen's University Belfast and a key member of its women's forum, which was set up by former vice-chancellor Sir George Bain in 1999. "I have discovered that most men will look at the (promotion) criteria and if they can match a couple, they will throw in their name. Most women say: 'I can do X, Y, Z, but I haven't got B and A, so I won't go for it.' Really, they need someone to say you don't need all of them. It's a matter of confidence."

Professor Ennis said that as well as clear benefits for the mentee, the mentors also reported that it was rewarding to help others, that they found out more about how the university worked and that it made them evaluate their own career strategy.

A dedicated champion appears crucial to the success of mentoring schemes. A two-year project in the North West funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England and run by Manchester, Salford, Liverpool John Moores, Central Lancashire, Lancaster, Liverpool and Bolton universities is now dormant. Mentees in science, engineering and technology were assigned mentors from another institution. The project matched 47 pairs, costing £2,500 each.

Shirley Silcock, human resources community officer at Bolton, said:

"Mentoring is not about a quick solution but a long-term process of increasing the self-confidence of women in science, engineering and technology and changing cultures to empower them. But budgets are stretched. It does require a champion, someone who is prepared to invest a great deal of time on matching the mentor to the mentee."

Dundee and St Andrews are set to expand their scheme to include men who are at the beginning of their research careers. Bristol is the latest university to set up a mentoring scheme.

olga.wojtas@thes.co.uk

'HAVING A MENTOR PUSHES YOU TO DO THINGS YOU WOULD NOT NORMALLY HAVE DONE'

Mhairi Towler is a postdoctoral fellow in molecular physiology at Dundee University. Her mentor is Pamela Ferguson, a professor of Scottish law at Dundee.

Dr Towler said: "Pamela is a great role model. She has a family, has excelled in her career and is very passionate about her work.

This gives me a lot to aspire to.

"Having (as my mentor) someone who is not in my department means there are no issues of there being something you might not want to say.

"Because she doesn't know the ins and outs of career progression in the science school, it has meant that I've had to go away and find the options so I can explain them to her. In practical terms, it has helped me to focus on what is most important for my career route.

"One of the things she did suggest was that I have a meeting with the head of department to talk over options such as applying for a fellowship or seeking my own grants.

"I probably wouldn't have had the courage to do that had she not suggested it. It's just giving you this extra boost, pushing you to do things you wouldn't normally have done.

"For me, it wasn't a gender issue, I just saw it as an opportunity to grab.

Men, I'm sure, could benefit from it as well."

Professor Ferguson said: "I let Mhairi decide how often she wants to meet, which has been once or twice a semester. We meet at lunchtime. I usually eat a sandwich at my desk, so it's an excuse to go to the university cafe and have a sit-down lunch.

"She's from a different background, in the division of molecular physiology, and I'm a law professor. But a lot of the advice one can give is generic. I like to think that one reason it has worked is that I can ask questions as an outsider: for example, how does career progression work in her specialism?

"I advised her to make an appointment with her head of school, and she asked if she could do that as a postdoc. I said, 'Of course.' In law, we know all our PhD students and postdocs.

"I applied to be a mentor. It's not something you can force people to do.

That would be a disaster, a tick-box exercise. People have to feel they have something to contribute.

"We talk about anything Mhairi's interested in talking about. It's been focused on how she can convert from being a postdoc to a permanent member of staff. It reminds me that I need to think about my future plans."

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