For equity in STEM academia, look beyond the 'guru mentor model'

Experts point to a dearth of mentors as a structural challenge

Despite recent gains, women—particularly minority women—are still less likely than men to obtain academic positions after completing a Ph.D. in a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) field, Diverse Education reports.

Experts point to an outdated mentorship model as part of the reason for the disparity. Kerry Ann Rockquemore, president of the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity, says "the biggest problem of all is that we somehow imagine that people can only be mentored in their specific field." This so-called "guru mentor" model encourages a new faculty member to rely on a single mentor to meet every need. Ultimately, she argues, this model encourages "dependency" and limits the overall availability of mentors for women in STEM. 

From a guru mentor to a network of support

Instead, Rockquemore suggests replacing the guru mentor with a network of specialized supporters. In this model, new faculty are connected with specific individuals for advice on specific situations, such as winning a grant or establishing authority in the classroom. "What matters is being surrounded by a wide network of people that you can talk with for advice," says Rockquemore, who delivered her remarks as part of a panel discussion on ethnic minorities and women in STEM hosted in Washington D.C.

Courtney Tanenbaum, a senior researcher at the American Institutes for Research, which hosted the panel, presented a range of statistics illustrating the challenges women face in STEM fields, including:

  • Only 59% of mothers and minority women obtain an academic position after completing a STEM Ph.D, compared to 70% of men;
  • Women are 3 percentage points more likely to leave STEM careers than men are; and
  • Mothers are 5 percentage points less likely to obtain a position at a research institution than fathers are.

“Even if the differences are really small and they seem manageable and it seems like we’ve made progress, that should embolden us to keep working on it, not say: ‘Problem solved,’” says Michael Feuer, dean of the Graduate School of Education & Human Development at George Washington University.

Rockquemore noted that women and minorities face a host of unique pressures when building a career in STEM-related field, and changing the status quo will require putting "meaningful things in place that help people work at their highest potential,” (Abdul-Alim, Diverse Education, 10/8).

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