Image from Marquette University (creative commons license)

Mentoring young women in the classroom: you don’t need to act more masculine, we should be making the workplace more feminine

When I was an undergraduate studying Environmental Science at Beloit College I thought that the United States was a place where the vast majority of people — men and women — believed in gender equality. I came of age in a University setting where feminism was the dominant paradigm. It was an empowering place for me. Any expression of misogyny or gender inequality from a member of the community was mocked and dismissed.

It was in this environment that I studied science. Coming from a family of three sisters (two scientists and an engineer), this didn’t even seem particularly strange to me. My academic mentors were two brilliant female scientists and a strongly feminist male scientist. It is only now that I realize how strange this situation was.

I think of myself as two things: feminist and scientist. These two things hold equal bearing on my professional choices. When they come into conflict with one another (e.g. could I be a quieter woman and get this science done more efficiently?), I have to reconcile my priorities. The two sides of me win in equal parts. For this reason, my role as a mentor to young women in science holds a strong bearing on my decisions of where to teach, how to teach, and how to develop mentoring relationships with students.

I currently teach Ecology and Biology at FIT: a fashion school in Manhattan with an 85% female student body. I get to teach and mentor a huge number of young women, who may have never had encouragement in the sciences in the past. I get to build a classroom environment that supports them in their analytical thinking and exploration of scientific ideas. But I took this job for more than just the opportunity to teach these young people scientific concepts. I took this job to model a new way of being a professional. For these young women (and men), I have the opportunity to model a new style of professional interaction. Contrary to the conversation I often see happening around women in the workplace, I don’t believe that we need to be teaching these young people how to speak in more masculine ways, how to write emails in more masculine ways, or express themselves in more masculine ways. I am trying to show these students the value of a new feminine leadership.

I see it like this: professional life was dominated by men for centuries. As a result of this, we started to see professionalism as a set of traits that are more strongly correlated with masculinity: stern, direct, without weakness, hierarchical, zero sum, and competitive. The problem is, these masculine traits are only correlated with professionalism due to the historical artifact of gender inequality. This does not mean that they are causally related! Having these traits does not necessarily mean that you will accomplish your professional goals more efficiently or that these behaviors will lead to more shrewd, efficient, or economical business practices. So while one approach to gender equality in the workplace is to advocate for women acquiring traditionally masculine traits — these are the traits that have demonstrated professional success in the past, so shouldn’t they be associated with professional success in the future? I advocate for an alternative. The whole system will benefit if we disregard this experimental artifact in history. Instead of making these women more masculine, we should be making the workplace more feminine.

Here I explore three behaviors that I tend to see more frequently from my female students than from my male students. I then argue for why we should be going out of our way to encourage these behaviors in the classroom. Ultimately, my classroom is a model for creating a more equitable and productive workplace.

Collaborative classrooms at the University of Hawaii (creative commons license)

1. Calling out your shortcomings and vulnerabilities while speaking with authority on a subject. This week I had two female students sit on debate panels in my classes and take some of their time to call attention to their own vulnerabilities. One had a slight stutter and the other had eczema. In both cases these were points that weren’t necessary to make their arguments. They both did this self-consciously, but also with some sense of self-possession. It felt natural to them. Immediately after this happened I could hear the voices of the authors of countless articles I’ve read: women, don’t undermine your own authority while speaking in the workplace. I pulled them both aside after class to explicitly encourage them to keep doing this (!) despite these claims. This behavior can be empowering for the individual, but it can also demonstrate to other students: this is a place where you can be yourself. This is the way we create a collaborative working environment.

I also provided them with this context: if the professional environment is a zero-sum game dominated by competition with your colleagues (e.g. every conversation is an opportunity to “get ahead” — sometimes to the detriment of your colleagues), admitting vulnerability may be seen as an erosion of your authority. But is this the only way to create a productive, efficient, thriving business? Could the work environment be more collaborative? And if so, isn’t there room to admit vulnerability and also be an expert?

2. Using the words “sorry,” “just,” and exclamation points in emails. Navigating my email inbox can be a nightmare. On any given day I get an average of 20–40 emails that require anywhere from 2 minutes to multiple days of my time (manuscript revisions, journal reviewer duties, blogging duties, grant applications, student requests about courses, research mentoring requests/questions, colleague requests/questions, administrative duties). I am going to address all of these requests, usually within 24 hours. I am not looking for someone to prioritize my time for me, I am looking for people to help me keep this process as pleasant as possible.

I receive email requests from students on a regular basis. Sometimes these requests take the form of thinly veiled demands: “Hi Professor Wright, I can’t access the learning management system, can you email me all of the readings and materials for the course?” And other times these requests are padded with niceties and enthusiasm, “Hi Professor Wright, I hope you’re well!! I just want to remind you that my first letter of recommendation is due in a week… thank you soooooo much!!”

If I choose to see my workplace as a zero-sum game I might see the first email as clear and difficult to ignore — it is a power grab. This person is demanding my attention and has to be responded to immediately. In this zero-sum game scenario, I might see the second email as easier to de-prioritize. It inherently places the power in my lap. Which might mean I choose to move it to the bottom of my list.

But that is not how I see it.

I am not looking for someone to prioritize my time for me, I am looking for people to help me keep this process as pleasant as possible. I see the first email as entitled and inappropriate. It will take me longer to respond to as I work through my annoyance at this individual, and figure out how to advise them towards a more appropriate approach. The second email leaves me WANTING to help. And so I go out of my way to do so. If the workplace is not a competitive environment, but instead a collaborative environment, there is no reason to affirm your standing through email language. The priorities can shift as needed, and being overly nice or enthusiastic is no longer considered a liability that may question your hierarchical standing.

Tom Hanks yelling at Bitty Schram in A League of Their Own

3. Crying in response to criticism or frustration. I have personally been told in the past: there is no crying in science. Of course, there’s notoriously no crying in baseball, there is no crying in business, and there is also no crying in journalism. In fact, if you google your profession of choice: “there’s no crying in _______,” I’m sure you’ll find someone telling you about how crying is not welcome in that particular profession. For my entire professional life, I have unintentionally expressed frustration in the workplace by crying. Crying can result from frustration, sadness, anger, isolation, and many other important emotions. It is an intense expression. But at its core it is no more intense than the hot anger that is often common in the workplace. Conversely, yelling and other forms of hot anger, are often seen as correlated with strong leadership, or a necessary evil when dealing with brilliance. Here we are suffering from the perceived superiority of the traditionally masculine traits, due merely to an artifact of a historical correlation.

The workplace is a human environment and therefore full of emotion. Whether male-dominated or female-dominated, humans have emotional responses to the world around them. Thank goodness. That emotion is an important part of processing and organizing information. Creating a workspace where people are allowed to express themselves has a positive effect on efficiency. Removing emotions from the workplace cannot be the solution. If we accept that expressing yourself in the workplace can make the workplace more productive, we may need some strategies for dealing with intense expressions of emotions. In all cases, whether crying or explosive anger, we should learn how to (1) ask the person if they are okay and would like to continue with the conversation, (2) allow them some space if they want to be alone, and (3) challenge ourselves to learn how to continue the conversation even if their particular expression of emotion is uncomfortable for us.

Admittedly these changes will often need to come from the top. As long as we are reinforcing these correlations, they will remain “true” (at least in practice). We will give more benefits to those young people who exhibit the more masculine traits, and thus it will appear as though those traits are functionally related to success. I don’t believe that’s how it has to be. And I am working to plant a seed in my students minds: Is there an alternative? Are these traits inherently better? Could you convince your boss of the utility of exploring a new approach? An approach that takes the best from both worlds, to create the highest quality/most productive work environment, regardless of the inequalities of our past.