Faculty Menotoring

Mentoring Study Helps Redefine Success for Women in Academia

By: Rachel Wimmer on

Switching from a traditional hierarchical mentoring model to a peer-oriented model could increase women faculty’s sense of empowerment in academia and help develop more holistic definitions of success, according to a new study out of the University of Central Florida.

The most cited reasons for women faculty resigning from careers in academia relate to lack of respect, limited institutional support and development, and personal discrimination. To address issues of the retention of women faculty at higher-education institutions, a recent UCF study published in the Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education investigates how changes in mentoring programs provided to women faculty can increase their sense of empowerment throughout their career.

Linda Walters, director of the Center for Success of Women Faculty, and Amanda Anthony, an associate professor of sociology, worked with a university mentoring community for the year-long study. Anthony, the lead author of the study, received her master’s and doctorate in sociology from Florida State University before joining the UCF Department of Sociology as an assistant professor in 2011. Her research interests include inequality, culture and identity, with particular interest in gender equality.

The study’s findings suggest that when it comes to retaining women faculty early in their career, community-based mentoring is critical in supporting empowerment of women faculty. This sense of empowerment not only helps them develop personal definitions of success, but provides them with the resources necessary for realizing their goals.

Traditional mentoring methods typically involve a mentor with greater experience imparting knowledge on a younger, less experienced mentee. This model can be exclusive, as studies have found that senior faculty typically choose who they see as younger versions of themselves as their mentees, excluding women and faculty of color in white male-dominated fields. Perceived departmental support by women at higher-education institutions plays a crucial role in their decision to stay or leave, ultimately affecting retention rates of women faculty.

In the study, women faculty members of a mix of ranks, ages, ethnicities and college affiliations participated in a mentoring model developed by the researchers that aimed to foster reciprocity, networking and social support systems, and directly address retention issues. Through a combination of monthly large-group sessions on common topics, such as negotiation-skills training, and self-guided small-group sessions, the model focused on peer-to-peer relationships rather than hierarchical mentoring.

The model encouraged an environment of sharing, encouraging equal contributions from all participants and promoting a sense of mutual support. It is unique in that it focuses on the idea that everyone has ideas and expertise to bring to the table, rather than using institutional position to define mentor/mentee relationships, minimizing power dynamics and increasing the fluidity of the support system, the authors said.  As every participant is recognized as both a mentor and mentee, reducing the burden on any single participant to hold all the expertise.

In her evaluation of the effectiveness of this mentoring model, Anthony found that the women expressed that the support they received through the mentoring community was based in their increased awareness of the resources available to them, as well as a newfound sense of empowerment in realizing their career-life goals.  In essence, women felt less isolated when they realized they were not the only ones who struggled with career-life balance, and that there were as many different definitions of success as there were women in the mentoring community.

“This research is critical in opening up and questioning what success means for individuals as this helps not only to better understand how success is related to personal identities, but also how we can create support systems that help people overcome perceived obstacles and achieve their definitions of success,” says Anthony.

Though there is a perception that progress is being made in addressing gender inequality in the workforce, there remain hidden biases and unspoken gender expectations that burden women with familial and household care. When women perceive having these expectations of them, their personal definitions of success and their ambition becomes skewed, feeling pressured to prioritize home life and relationships over career success.

When it comes to finding ways to overcome these perceived career obstacles, Anthony says, “By examining success in new ways, we can better understand the expectations on people, and how this in turn can be managed in empowering ways and in what ways we can also better address obstacles to success on the ground in an applied manner.”

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