New role model: a fogey in tweed

February 2, 2007

Maria Misra thought herself the perfect candidate to be a mentor until she learnt that it could end up as merely a cloning exercise.

Another string has recently been added to my flimsy academic bow; I now have a new role as a mentor. Mentoring younger colleagues and graduate students who plan a career in academia struck me as something for which I was peculiarly well suited. I have all the essential endowments of a thoroughly modern mentor: a woman, ethnic-minority status, youngish, with a state school education. I seem to tick all the boxes. So you can imagine my distress to discover that there is mounting evidence suggesting that the gender and race of one's mentor is of virtually no consequence.

A study of summer interns at a West Coast media organisation in the US revealed that the students found the experience most rewarding not when the mentor matched them in ethnicity but rather simply when they happened to like them; and they liked mentors who shared their values and had a similar personality. Studies on the relationship between gender and student satisfaction were less conclusive, but did suggest that male and female mentors went about their tasks in rather different ways. While women seemed to see the job as essentially being a role model, men took the more tangible route of offering practical career advancement.

While it is good to know that we are not narrowly straitjacketed by our "essential" characteristics of ethnicity and gender, it is slightly worrying to see how much our ability to learn from others depends on our liking them, and that we tend to like people who remind us of ourselves and share our opinions. This finding raises a couple of serious issues. First, such preferences reveal the cause of what one has long suspected: that in their recruitment and training, the professions tend to produce clones of themselves, generation after generation. In smaller institutions, this could lead rapidly to advanced atrophy.

Second, it raises a mare's nest of problems around the whole issue of diversity. For, in fairness, if we believe mentoring is essential to career development and that mentoring works best between people of like minds and proclivities, then surely we ought to be offering mentors with a suitably diverse range of personalities and values. We seem to be concerned with providing mentors of the same race and sex on the grounds that women and minorities are being disadvantaged. But what if it were shown that academe was not only colonised by white males but also by persons holding a somewhat limited range of values and opinions? Could not those of opposing values and opinions claim to be victims of discrimination? This has become an issue in the US, where the political Right has accused academe of being so overwhelmingly left wing as to prejudice the chances of aspirants holding less liberal opinions. And research does suggest that academics, particularly those in the humanities and social sciences, do tend to Left-liberal predilections. In the US this issue has moved towards litigation, as the Right has deployed the arguments usually associated with the Left, but to demand that recruitment policy must allow for political diversity.

After reflection, I think it probably best if I abandon my new-found vocation as mentor. Academe is, after all, overflowing with people of similar opinions, values and probably personalities to mine. Henceforth, when asked to mentor some unfortunate junior I shall insist, in the interests of diversity, that my place be taken by a tweed-jacketed, Anglo-Saxon fogey.

Maria Misra is a lecturer in modern history at Oxford University.

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