Many mentoring relationships do not reach fruition because the individuals fail to bridge a critical difference. When a difference prevents a learning partnership from achieving its potential, the loss is multidimensional for the individuals and the institution—wasting opportunities for the fostering of current and future talent. –  Janet Bickel, MA, and Susan L. Rosenthal, PhD Academic Medicine, Vol. 86, No. 10 / October 2011 

Earlier this spring, Janet Bickel visited UCDMC and presented her research on “How men can excel as mentors to women”.  The jointly sponsored presentation by WIMHS and the Office of the Associate Vice Chancellor of Diversity and Inclusion was attended by a number of male and female students, residents and faculty, as well as UCDMC leadership.  Following a lively discussion at the conclusion of the presentation, Melissa Bauman had a chance to ask some follow up questions:Janet Bickel (third from the rights) with UCDMC Ladership.

Janet Bickel (third from the right) with UCDMC Leadership.


Welcome back to UC Davis!  Prior to your visit WIMHS distributed two of your recent publications, “How Men Can Excel as Mentors of Women” and “Difficult Issues in Mentoring: Recommendations on Making the “Undiscussable” Discussable”.  The topics of complex mentor-mentee relationships you described are certainly not uncommon in academic medicine. What sparked this area of interest?  I hope one of the values of my papers is to provide mentors with a framework to begin to evaluate some of their own assumptions.  Perhaps a female mentee would be able to give a copy to her mentor and simply say, “I have found this helpful and would you be willing to read it too because I know that you are dedicated to mentoring”.  That may provide a platform to begin to explore these issues together.

In your papers you describe difficulties that well-intentioned mentors face as their mentees begin to transition into more independent positions.  Your data suggest that this can be particularly difficult when the mentor is a man and the mentee is a woman.  What advice would you have for someone dealing with these issues?  Mentees need to be brave and ask difficult questions.  If you notice that your mentor is detaching, or perhaps providing different support to male mentees, then asking questions is key.  I’m hoping one of the values of my research is to provide mentees with tools to share with their mentors. As described in my article “Discussing the undiscussable” – it is natural for sensitive issues to arise and this provides a tool for approaching these topics with your mentor.  So often the conditioning of the mentee is to avoid difficult conversations with their mentor, but if we can move towards those questions earlier in the process we may be able to address these issues.  So asking your mentor “I’ve noticed a change in how you challenge me or support me.  What have you noticed?” opens the door to address these issues.  Of course, if the mentor is defensive or doesn’t engage than that’s data that this person is unprepared to have the type of conversation that is needed to progress.  At that point, it is up to the mentee to take responsibility and find different sources of mentorship.

Perhaps a more appropriate question is how to select a good mentor in the first place.  What advice do you have for identifying mentors who will be able to successfully navigate complex mentor-mentee relationships, and support the mentee’s transition to independence? I think a lot depends on the security of the mentor and their willingness to consider other points of view. Most mentors are well intentioned, but you also need to consider how they may receive feedback.  You need a realistic assessment of how the mentor-mentee relationship is going.  Unfortunately, it seems to be true that those who most need to ask for feedback have the most resistance to it.

How do these issues contribute to the attrition of female faculty? Well, it is never any one issue. I think this is where we are now.  It is a half changed world for women. We have achieved educational equity to a large extent, and yet, what we have learned is that are a number of variables contributing to attrition are multifaceted and resistant to change.

WIMHS thanks Janet Bickel for taking the time to meet with us and discuss this important line of research.  Links to the articles are provided below – please distribute to mentors and mentees alike!

Acad Med. 2014 Aug;89(8):1100-2. doi: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000000313. How men can excel as mentors of women. Bickel J

Acad Med. 2014 Dec;89(12):1610-3. doi: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000000428. Discussing the undiscussable with the powerful: why and how faculty must learn to counteract organizational silence. Dankoski ME1, Bickel J, Gusic ME.

Coming up next month, Joan C. Williams, Distinguished Professor of Law will address work-life balance challenges in a presenation entitled, “Can I have a full career and a full life?”

Please register online for the June 11th events using the link below and join us for another WIMHS sponsored event.

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