Mentoring and equity: Women and geography

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Bonnie Kaserman, University of British Columbia
Guest Contributor

Once a month I head out from my apartment in the evening, directions to someone’s home usually scrawled on a piece of scrap paper. Each month, a group of women geographers, composed of graduate students, researchers, postdoctoral fellows and faculty, gather in someone’s living room. I am one of these women. We meet in order to discuss our gendered experiences in the discipline, to learn from one another, and to enhance our understanding of academic culture so that we might make positive changes in the academy.  We also laugh.  A lot.

Almost a decade ago, women from the Geography departments of both the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University began these strategic meetings. Today, the group continues to be a vibrant space of mentoring, and our group is one of several throughout Canada and the United States. These groups have formed in response to gendered departmental experiences and to inequities documented within the discipline and the academy. Groups are autonomous and differ in organizational structures, membership and activities, but we share a common goal of promoting the participation of women in Geography.  As such, we share the moniker Supporting Women in Geography (SWIG).

I’ve participated in SWIG groups since I was an undergraduate Geography major. I am now completing my PhD in the discipline, and mentoring within the SWIG community remains one of the highlights of my academic life.  In SWIG we frame mentoring as feminist praxis, that is, to work with women, people of color, and other groups marginalized from and within the academy in order to negotiate the academic system and to make change within the academy.

Participating in SWIG has, for me, brought to the fore two questions regarding equity: How do we make sustainable change? How do we make sustainable the process of making change?

How do we make sustainable change?

The literature regarding equity in the academy often cites two inter-related issues: formal structures and quotidian practice. Universities must increase their recruitment of faculty and graduate students from underrepresented groups, and, in order to make this recruitment matter, we must revise everyday practices that work to marginalize.

In my SWIG group, we primarily focus on everyday practices.  Each meeting has a thematic focus, and meeting facilitators provide members with articles on related research.  Drawing on these readings, we connect our own experiences to a larger context and literature regarding equity and academic culture. For example, we educate ourselves to the dynamics of academic discourse, whether it is in colloquiums or graduate seminars. Within the literature on academic mobbing, we find lists of specific behaviours that contribute to mobbing, and the literature suggests that individuals from underrepresented groups are at highest risk.

Educating ourselves in SWIG, we are able to better identify and revise our own actions outside of SWIG that marginalize others and ourselves. Moreover, being informed with literature regarding equity, pedagogy, and academic culture provides us with academic authority that our own experiences are not always granted. We can choose to speak to our departmental colleagues about the latest research rather than relying on personal experience, somewhat de-personalizing marginalizing practices.

How do we make sustainable the process of making change?

While this second question delimits the possibilities of the first, it is often left out of the literature on equity.

If, for example, graduate students are to be seen as agents of change, then how do we take into account the recent findings that the stress of graduate school unevenly affects graduate students?  Women, people of color, LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer) communities, and other marginalized groups are considered at the highest risk for mental health issues in graduate school due to stress and, as some researchers suggest, a chilly climate.

The creation of status of women reports is a necessary task taken on by women, and women faculty members are sought out as mentors. What is the toll of equity work on the bodies of faculty and grads? What are the limits to what these individuals can take on or achieve given the material circumstances and social consequences of the academy?

SWIG is just one space where we must bear these questions in mind. Since the group has voluntary attendance, we would not survive for long if we were not sustainable in our practices for equity.

“How do we make sustainable change?” and “How do we make sustainable the process of making change?”

Mentoring is a practice that hits at the intersection of these two questions. In my SWIG group, each member simultaneously occupies the role of mentor and mentee. The goal is not to escape the hierarchies of student and faculty but, rather, to understand that from these positions we can mentor each other. By listening to each other, we learn insights about being an MA student in today’s academy, and we learn faculty insights on how to better communicate with our advisors. We reveal our vulnerabilities and celebrate our successes. We also learn early on about troublesome work-life balance, the hours of labour required in the profession, and the limits of networking only with women. By actively taking on the role of mentor-mentee within the framework of feminist praxis, I feel that I will be more able as a mentor-mentee for equity when/if I obtain a tenure track position.

Crucially, SWIG creates an environment where we have a lot of fun. Attending meetings re-energizes and inspires. SWIG is sustainable because it sustains our minds and bodies.

SWIG isn’t a utopia. However, it is a significant organization for SWIG members and also within the humanities and social sciences. The ‘hard’ sciences seem to have more formalized structures at departmental levels to mentor for equity. Do the humanities and other social sciences have these kinds of organizations? Where are they, and what are they doing? Are we networking with each other?  If not, why not?

Bonnie Kaserman is a PhD Candidate in Geography at the University of British Columbia.  Her blog on graduate school culture, “(un)becoming academic,” is featured on the Academic Matters website


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