Do Female Academics Have to Be Role Models?

We talk a lot about issues for women and minorities in academic science, and the importance of mentoring for new students and faculty. But are we expecting too much of women and minority faculty?
Yesterday my review of Dr. Abigail Stewart and Dr. Virginia Valian’s “An Inclusive Academy” came out in the LA Review of Books. It was an interesting, if dense, read about the issues facing universities in terms of diversity and inclusion, and how they can implement specific measures to address these issues. The book was based on 17 years of research from nine universities who participated in a pilot program using NSF funds, so there is robust data to support their solid conclusions.
At the same time, an article in the Times Higher Education about Canadian scientist Dr. Donna Strickland, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics, expressed disappointment with Strickland’s lack of interest in being a role model:

“While [Strickland] has revealed some knowledge of women in STEM “having had problems”, because she hasn’t had them herself she concludes that: “I can’t put myself in their shoes. So, I feel like I can’t really be a role model for people who have struggled that way.”

I, too, struggle with this idea of being a mentor to women in science. Before I left academia I seriously considered that I was leaving a woman-shaped hole in academic science that would likely be filled by a man. But we have to make career decisions that suit us, and there was no way I could stay in academia just to be a role model – given my illness, I would have been a very poor role model indeed.
I don’t believe that you can’t be a role model if you haven’t experienced harassment. But I do think everyone has the freedom to choose their career trajectory. Strickland may not feel up to being a role model – she might rather want to focus all her energy on her students and/or her research. I don’t think she’s required to go out of her way to be a mentor if that’s not what she wants to do. As someone noted on Twitter, why don’t male Nobel winners go out of their way to be good mentors and support diversity initiatives?
We should be glad that she received the Nobel, that there’s now a woman’s name in the recent Nobel canon, and we can hope that her achievement inspires women to pursue the discipline.
For other perspectives on this topic, @thelabandfield pointed me to Athene Donald’s blog post on the same subject.
Another interesting article came across my desk about women in academia – this time as department chairs:

“Female department chairs reduce gender gaps in publications and tenure for assistant professors and shrink the gender pay gap. Replacing a male chair with a female chair increases the number of female students among incoming graduate cohorts by 10%.”

Fascinating. Stewart and Valian would definitely have something to say about this! To read the full article, see here.

So no, I don’t expect all women to be mentors, and yes, having women as department chairs will likely further diversity and inclusion initiatives in universities. Any questions?

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