Women physicians, at all stage of their careers, cite having a mentor as a “very important” key to a successful career. These mentors unlock the doors of the structures that bar us from entry. They bring about opportunities that help us to advance.
While this sounds like a viable thesis, I think it is too simple and begs the several issues of why women must approach mentorship in a totally different way from men. The assumption that the current model for mentoring of our male colleagues from time immemorial will be as effective for women, may lead us down another misguided path with results we didn’t expect or want.
What do women physicians need from a mentor?
What obviously comes to my mind first is a doorman. Someone to open the right doors at the right time, usher you in, help you carry your baggage (even when it is really heavy) and clean up the mud that you have left from your shoes because you weren’t careful and stepped in too many messes. Let’s face it, with women’s lib, we aren’t so accustomed to having someone of either sex help us, pick up after us, and take care of us. After all, we are strong, we are woman!
Women physicians also often need a work-life integrator. When we face ourselves and our biological imperatives (for some) to have families, figuring out how to make it work so we can continue to work, a doorman is probably not the best solution. So we need a coach, someone who has been there, done that. Sounds like we need another person, someone with very different skills.
Next, we need an emotional guide—someone can reassure us constantly (and it is a constant battle) that we are not crazy when we see that our behavior (as women surgeons in particular), is judged by different criteria. This “gender stereotyping” gets us going and coming. If we have a difficult case and a bad outcome and try to keep going without letting it show that it is eating us up inside (and believe me, it always does), we are cold and uncaring. But if we take the time to openly mourn, we are not tough enough for the job. “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” is how it’s commonly put.
And then all the other litte things a mentor usually is expected to do—help with career path decisions, set research goals, provide teaching opportunities, advise on contracts, help find jobs and training opportunities, and so on and so forth. Maybe a fourth person or even a fifth, maybe not—sometimes doormen can multi-task, but don’t get your hopes up too high.
Clearly, not one person is going to fulfill all of these roles. That’s why finding “a mentor” is not what we need. We need to find many mentors, in the plural. Seeking and sustaining these relationships is hard work in the face of our already limited time.
Doorman, coach, adviser, teacher, and sympathetic ear—all the roles a mentor needs to play when the mentee is a woman. Let’s relieve ourselves of the notion that we need “a mentor” and start thinking about how we create the many relationships we, as women physicians, will need to be successful in our chosen life path. And for this to work, we have to create for ourselves and for our male colleagues, a culture of mentoring so that everyone gets what she/he needs and deserves.
Post script: I am blessed to have had a wonderful male colleague as my lifelong mentor, Dr. Robert Ruben. He is indeed a unique individual. Not everyone is so lucky. And I would feel really badly if he happened to read this post and didn’t see himself as my doorman, my emotional coach, my life guide and my teacher and friend!