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Woman–Woman Mentoring Relationships and Their Roles in Tenure Attainment

Center for Women Women in Student Affairs
May 24, 2019 Elyn M. Palmer Stephanie Jones


Women working to attain tenure face multiple professional obstacles (e.g., isolation and navigating the professional environment), as well as personal issues (e.g., life balance), often without a sense of individual identity. One way to help address these challenges is mentoring programs. Existing mentoring programs in higher education tend to not pair mentors and mentees of the same gender, or limit their participants to those in specific academic fields. Through constructivism, a collective case study format, and framed by Kram’s mentoring theory, this study explored six women’s experiences and perceptions with woman–woman mentoring relationships, and the extent to which these relationships benefited their pursuit and attainment of tenure. Participants perceived that woman–woman mentoring relationships can help address the challenges that women faculty face in their personal and professional roles, as evidenced through their experiences with women mentors. They also perceived that there are benefits to establishing opportunities for women to create naturally occurring mentoring relationships that can help tenure-track women faculty navi- gate the tenure process more effectively. Finally, successful mentoring relationships entail choosing mentors who have characteristics such as viewing the mentoring relationship as part of a greater system—the academy—are honest, listen well, and are willing to advise mentees. In addition, participants perceived that woman–woman mentoring is more successful when holistic and com- munal, and unsuccessful if mentors are focused on self-preservation and not the growth of others.

While academic tenure holds prestige and honor, pursuing tenure requires a monumental commitment of time and energy by not only the tenure-seeking faculty member but also their family and support networks (Cawyer, Simonds, & Davis, 2002; Perlmutter, 2010; Schrodt, Cawyer, & Sanders, 2003). The challenges women face when seeking tenure and subsequent promotion are supported by statistics that show that in Fall 2015, while 45.63% of postsecondary faculty were women, of the 182,204 faculty who were full professors, only 31.74% were women (U.S. Department of Education [USDOE], 2016). This limited repre- sentation of women at the top faculty ranks has encouraged researchers to explore the specific relationships between women and the tenure process, in areas such as tenure expectations and life balance, succeeding within a profession traditionally dominated by men, and the support structures between women that help them attain tenure or career advancement (e.g., Gardiner, Tiggemann, Kearns, & Marshall, 2007; Jones & Palmer, 2011; VanTuyle & Watkins, 2010; Winkler, 2000). Martin (2000) claimed that the number of women who successfully navigate the tenure process will not increase if the needs of women on the tenure track are not addressed.

In general, women are required to balance personal and professional responsibilities to a greater extent than men (Armenti, 2004), within support systems that are traditionally designed for men. Women who attained the rank of tenured faculty have historically reported struggles with isolation, losses of other personal goals (e.g., marriage or children) (Gerdes, 2010; Lepkowski, 2009), and lack of personal serenity (Gerdes, 2010). The processes and expectations surrounding the tenure process were established when men achieved academic standing and women did not pursue professions, specifically while establishing families, which negatively impacted the number of women pursuing and achieving tenure (Solomon, 1985; Winkler, 2000). Winkler (2000) found that lack of flexibility, institutional and peer support, and perceived life balance further inhibited women from achieving promotion and tenure. The small percentage of women in tenured faculty or administrative positions appears to be a result of a lack of professional and cultural support rather than any intellectual or experiential short- comings of women (Gerdes, 2010). As noted by Ragins and Cotton (1999), the challenges specific to women are best addressed by other women; therefore, the interactions between women within a mentoring environment can provide added benefits to those struggling with the tenure process.

Mentoring is defined by Kram (1983) as a relationship between two people in which one guides and supports (mentor) the second (mentee) through professional and/or perso- nal development. This is the definition used in this study. Mentoring relationships include professional components (e.g., coaching of and protection for the mentee) and psycholo- gical components (e.g., counseling and friendship). Previous research, though limited, has addressed women mentoring women professionally (e.g., Angelique, Kyle, & Taylor, 2002; Cullen & Luna, 1993; VanTuyle & Watkins, 2010; Wasburn, 2007). These studies focused on a qualitative exploration of informal mentoring processes (VanTuyle & Watkins, 2010), mentoring of women academics in STEM fields (Wasburn, 2007), and mentoring of women in general mentoring programs (Cullen & Luna, 1993). Formal mentoring programs designed to pair professional academic women are often limited to discipline-specific, club-type programs (Angelique et al., 2002). Within this existing research, however, there is limited discussion regarding the mentoring of women by women and its effect on the success of women in tenure attainment. The existing literature on mentoring is limited relative to mentoring and the tenure process, specifically for women. It also does not address the effects of same-gender mentoring relationships or programs on the successful attainment of tenure. While the literature does address the unique needs and power differentials of professional women, it does not explore whether mentoring addresses these needs and power differentials as they apply to achieving tenure. A search within the electronic databases at the study institution related to woman–woman mentoring in higher education and same sex mentoring for the years 2000–2017 resulted in 65 results, a large portion of which was dissertations. Additional research is needed to determine whether woman–woman mentoring relationships affect women’s successful attainment of tenure.

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