Mentoring the Marginalized


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… a huge and frequently unaddressed problem in science and academia is that people feel that they are faced with the task of climbing a huge mountain, all by oneself. Mentors can be the sherpas who lend a helping hand and share some of the burden, so that one no longer feels quite so alone.

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I want to briefly share my thoughts on three points: who needs a mentor, and why; who can be a mentor; and how can a mentor help?


I write from the perspective of a scientist in academia. Typically, no one teaches us how to be a scientist – rather, they teach us science: quantum field theory, organic synthesis, virology or algebraic geometry. Other things that are equally vital in order to be a functioning scientist or academic — how to choose and approach a research problem, how to reply to a referee report, how to write a grant proposal, how to plan the syllabus for a course, how to deal with hostile colleagues, or even how to be a good mentor to one’s own students – one is generally expected to have somehow picked up by osmosis. This is not terribly effective or efficient. As a result, many early-career researchers and teachers are left floundering.


For the ‘osmosis’ to work, one has to be embedded in an environment rich with experience and advice, be it from seniors or peers. Women and individuals from other marginalized groups are significantly less likely to be in such an environment, or be in a position to benefit from it. (I will discuss mostly the situation of women, because this is what I am familiar with. However, I am aware that similar challenges are faced by academics from historically disadvantaged and underrepresented groups.) A significant fraction of such mentoring advice tends to be communicated in informal situations, e.g., over a coffee in the office canteen, or over a drink after work (clearly, solvents are required for osmosis to occur!). Women are often excluded from such interactions — either because it is not considered socially acceptable for them to mingle with their colleagues and seniors (in a pub or bar, for example – yes, this can be true even today) or because they simply do not have the time for such socializing, due to the pressures of family responsibilities. Further, if a young woman spends considerable time talking to a mentor (who, due to statistical probability, is most likely to be male) this frequently leads to prurient speculation and the spreading of vicious gossip. In such a situation, many women often choose to restrict their interactions with their colleagues to formal professional meetings, thus missing out on opportunities for being mentored. Men may also hesitate to mentor a younger woman colleague, for fear of having their motives be misunderstood. So, yes, the “old boys’ network” does exist, and is indeed exclusionary.


Could one solution be for senior women to mentor junior women? Yes, of course, but there are two problems with this: one is that there just aren’t enough senior women in academia to mentor all their younger female colleagues and students, especially if one wants to match the area of professional interest. The other is that these senior women tend to already be overcommitted, e.g., due to having to be the ‘token woman’ on a number of administrative and professional committees. I have long functioned as a mentor to a number of young women (and men), and frequently found myself being approached by junior researchers who explicitly asked me if I could be their mentor. Though sympathetic to their needs, I sometimes hesitated, since I worried that this would require a heavy commitment of time on my part, and I felt that I was already stretched too thin.


Over the years, I have come to realize two things in this context: one is that effective mentoring need not always require a very sustained and detailed engagement between mentor and mentee: even the occasional little nudge provided by the mentor can make a big difference to the mentee’s life and career. The other is that mentoring can also be provided by a group, composed of both peers and seniors.


I have been moved by several young women telling me that I played an important role in shaping their professional trajectories. What impresses me is that the effort on my part was minimal: urging a student who had got into to a famous university for her PhD, but wasn’t seriously thinking of accepting, to grasp the opportunity (she now has a PhD from there). Pointing out to a woman who was scared to submit her paper to a prestigious journal that she had nothing to lose by trying anyway (her paper was accepted). Suggesting to a woman who was visiting an institute abroad for a workshop that she make appointments with faculty members there, to see if she could initiate a collaboration (she was awarded a highly competitive fellowship from the institute, and has published two papers together with faculty members there). Each of these interventions took just a few minutes of my time: to listen to a description of their situation, and proffer advice – but apparently had a huge impact, altering the course of their careers.


That such ‘little interventions’ can help tremendously I have found also to be true in scientific work.


I have been involved in setting up a mentorship program for African students in my field of density functional theory. Typically, these students are in the first generation of researchers working in this field at their home institutions, and thus do not have anyone available locally to help them get ‘unstuck’ when their calculations do not work out. It often takes me or another mentor just five minutes to listen to their problem and suggest a solution – e.g., changing the value of an input parameter so that a computation converges, or pointing out that some flag has been set incorrectly on an input file.


To help mentor female physicists from developing countries, I have been co-organizing ‘Career Development Workshops’ at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy and the ICTP-EAIFR in Kigali, Rwanda. These workshops give women in physics a space in which to share their experiences, meet successful women physicists who can serve as role models, and also acquire the kinds of ‘soft skills’ (writing papers and grant proposals, making presentations, etc.) that I have mentioned above. We also work with a drama therapist who helps the women come to terms with challenging situations or traumatic experiences in their lives or careers, e.g., the conflicting pulls of career and family, or a hostile work environment. Each group of about 60 women contains physicists from all over the world who are at different stages of their careers. Strong bonds are formed within the group, and everyone mentors one other, with contact being maintained via social media after the workshop ends. Participants have described these workshops as being ‘transformative’ experiences that have given them a huge boost in confidence.


Similarly, to mentor African students in our field of physics, we have set up ASESMA (African School in Electronic Structure Methods and Applications). In addition to focused workshops where both physics and soft skills are taught, there are monthly follow-up ‘clinics’ where, after a brief discussion of a particular technical topic, students can share the problems they are facing in their research work, and the whole group suggests solutions.


I have already mentioned that an issue that we encounter frequently in the drama therapy sessions in our workshops is that of how to deal with conflict of various kinds. There is no simple one-size-fits-all solution, but discussions with peers and mentors can help one find fresh perspectives and answers. Due to cultural reasons, many women seem particularly uncomfortable when faced with conflict. Moreover, those women who do choose to engage in a conflictual interaction are often perceived by others as being ‘inappropriately’ aggressive and rude (whereas a man behaving in the same way would not evoke the same negative reactions). In such a situation, one feels hemmed in and frustrated, and talking to mentors helps enormously. In one of our workshops, a participant working within a strongly patriarchal environment suggested that a solution was for women to “be like a snail”: move ahead slowly, slowly, so that no one even notices that you are moving forward; when there is danger, retreat within your shell; and when the danger passes, move forward slowly again. This advice was completely different from the way I was taught to behave, but I could appreciate that for many women, this might be the only safe and viable option. It also made me rethink the way I had been raised, and realize that there can be many different ways of handling conflict.


To conclude, I wish to reiterate that a huge and frequently unaddressed problem in science and academia is that people feel that they are faced with the task of climbing a huge mountain, all by oneself. Mentors can be the sherpas who lend a helping hand and share some of the burden, so that one no longer feels quite so alone.


Update (26-Oct-2021): The link to ASEMSA was added.

Shobhana Narasimhan is a Professor in the Theoretical Sciences Unit at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bengaluru. Views expressed are personal.


This article is part of a Confluence series called “Mentor-Mentee Relationships in Academia: Nature, Problems and Solutions”

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