Mentoring Women: Making it happen


Dr. Elizabeth Skarakis-Doyle

Dr. Elizabeth Skarakis-Doyle

By Mitchell Zimmer

An audience of mostly women faculty, post doctoral fellows and graduate students from across campus filled Room 258 of the Weldon Library to capacity for “a day of learning, action and conversation about mentorship, balance and career development for women in academe.” The Mentoring Women gathering on May 7th provided a forum to also delve into issues such as the imposter syndrome, isolation and (in spite of the general raised awareness) prejudice.

The day opened with reviews and overviews of mentorship initiatives from the past to the present. The speakers included Louise Milligan, Associate Dean (Administration) for the Faculty of Science; Betsy Skarakis-Doyle, Vice President, Western’s Caucus on Women’s Issues; Madeline Lennon, Coordinator, Faculty Mentor Program; and Nanda Dimitrov, Associate Director, Teaching Support Centre (TSC).

The next segment was a plenary session made up of a panel of women academics at different career points who identified the experiences that contributed to their success. Skarakis-Doyle, Lindi Wahl, Associate Professor, Applied Mathematics, Christine Spengler, Assistant Professor, Visual Arts and Allison McDonald, Postdoctoral Fellow, Biology spoke to the audience about a number of issues. While it was agreed that mentoring is a valuable asset to navigate a path through academia, the question remained, what type of mentoring is available? Is it purely oriented towards managing a research career? Can the advice include the life outside of campus? Is there such a thing as a work/life balance? How does one deal with the ‘imposter’ syndrome?

To further explore these and other questions, a World Café session was set up to foster small group discussions. This format uses progressive rounds of conversation and encourages participants to connect ideas with questions that matter in a relaxed setting. In the next round all the participants of each table save one would shift to another table while the remaining person would act as host to facilitate the new discussion incorporating ideas from the previous round. This method encourages cross pollination of ideas and deepens the exploration of issues. From these discussions actions plans were drawn up for next steps.

These groups first considered their experiences with successful mentoring on campus which included formal workshops, conferences and the services offered through agents such as International Students Services and the TSC as well as professional organizations. Besides these scheduled events participants commented that informal networks and relationships made up of peers and colleagues who are further along in their careers have provided valuable mentoring experiences. These scenarios didn’t appear from nowhere. Successful mentoring was accomplished through mentors proactively engaging students and colleagues in sharing knowledge about opportunities.

The next round of discussions focused on the areas where more mentoring would be useful and how to access that mentoring. Generally, mentoring directed at professional advancement at any point in one’s career would be useful yet there are transitional periods such as from graduate student to assistant professor where specific advice becomes valuable. There are also situations where mentoring would come in handy as in dealing with the “unwritten” and cultural norms of one’s department or guidance in coping with “trailing spouse syndrome” within and across departments. At the same time, there are perceived challenges in accessing this additional mentoring which include factors such as a culture of competition, the physical distance from potential mentors when labs and departments are situated in different locations and a concern for negative perceptions placed on asking for help and fear of judgment if one does.

A total of 16 recommendations arose from the last session of the World Café following three themes.

  • Increase awareness, visibility and accessibility of currently available mentoring programs and initiatives.
  • Create new opportunities and programs to promote mentoring
  • Create a culture of mentorship

For a summary of the event please click here to download the pdf.