Mentoring, gendered work and an academic career

March 18, 2010


Sarah Wolfe, University of Waterloo and Ailsa Craig, Memorial University

Guest Contributors

Every day begins with an email: ‘Here’s my pact. What are you doing today?’  The messages fly back and forth, halfway across the country. Hardly the conventional model for academic mentorship, but it works for us.

We started chatting through an online community for students finishing dissertations. We are not in the same field – though our research has overlapping concerns – nor are we at the same institution. We have no shared social networks and didn’t attend school together.

When we met, one of us – Sarah – was pregnant with a first child and the other – Ailsa– had a toddler at home.  We ranted about transcribing interviews. We compared notes about the defense process. Once a month, we met at a Guelph bookstore-café and talked about pregnancy and parenthood while drinking huge quantities of tea. But mostly we just worked on our dissertations as fast and as hard as we could.  We used daily pacts – quick email messages listing our tasks and mini-goals – to stay focused and move forward.

What we have in common now is that we are young, untenured, female academics. We both have partners and two young children, teaching and writing deadlines, ambition and laundry. A lot of laundry. The shared hatred of laundry alone was enough to cement our friendship. So when Ailsa moved across the country for a position at Memorial, our monthly, in-person work sessions – talk, toil and tea – came to an end. But the daily pacts did not.

Four years later, there is a paper file filled with daily pacts documenting our progress through defense and recovery, the birth of two more children, academic job searches, celebratory contract signings, confusion about departmental politics and questions about teaching, supervising, the tenure process and navigating workplace expectations about motherhood, research and publishing.

Beyond just our daily lists we also remain friends. 

So our pacts include personal issues – little text add-ons after our critical work tasks are enumerated. We write about children and partners, our struggles to stay healthy and balanced, and our respective grief about recent family deaths.  We are shifting from the siege mentality of our early pacts – when the children-induced sleep deprivation was at its peak – to a more aggressively proactive approach.  We have, for example, recently decided that our pacts needed some ‘rules’: now no daily pact can be longer than ten items and every pact must include one ‘Me’ – one thing per day that isn’t for the benefit of children, spouse, colleagues or students.

These daily pacts are important to us. Not because they help us meet deadlines and stay accountable – although they do – but because of the symbiotic mentorship they nurture.  The mentorship we provide each other means we are information sources, motivational and critical coaches, psychologists, career strategists and translators.  Even more critical is that the mentorship relationship makes the statistics somehow less daunting – for female academics, the overlap between their pre-tenure years and early motherhood can impede productivity, slow progress on the salary scale, and harm long-term career prospects.  Of course, more men are taking active roles in childcare and household management. Still, the research shows that women – even highly-educated professional women – continue to carry the primary childcare load.

So how can universities marshal and retain as much female human capital as possible? ‘Family-friendly’ policies – for child and elder care – are popular options.  Diversifying the tenure path is another – for example, allowing for explicit tenure-through-teaching or tenure-through-research options – without financial penalty. Dismantling the culture of ‘publish-or-perish’ in the pre-tenure period is more radical, but also a possibility.  And many universities also now provide institutionally-based mentorship of new faculty. But these formal programs tend to be built on a ‘mentor/student’ model — and often by the time a woman becomes a senior academic with adult children they seem to have forgotten ‘how they did it’.

This isn’t surprising: when female undergraduates ask us for advice, we don’t know how we do it either. It is too much. But the pacts help, and our friendship/mentorship helps. So while we wait for institutional evolution, the most important thing we tell the young, ambitious female students who want children and professional careers is to find a kindred spirit. Make a list. Cross things off, and report in at the end of the day.

Sarah Wolfe is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Environment and Resource Studies at the University of Waterloo, ON]. Her current research focuses on mentorship in the Canadian water policy community. Ailsa Craig is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Her work focuses on culture and inequality.