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Talking About Race, Gender and Mentoring

Several months ago two friends, one younger and Black, the other older and White, started talking about race (guess which one I am). Both of us have PhDs and share a passion for science and a commitment to diversity. The catalyst for this conversation was David Thomas’ “The Truth About Mentoring Minorities: Race Matters”, originally published in April 2001 by the Harvard Business Review.

The conversation has been periodic, punctuated by weeks (months?) of silence, but has remained focused on the mentoring of doctoral candidates since we are concerned greatly about graduate education. This is just the beginning and we are not able to predict where the conversation will lead. Periodically, we will be sharing the results of our conversations on each of our blogs, FairerScience and iPhDgirl.

We thought we would start by writing a bit about where we are coming from.

I (Pat) am a former college professor with a strange hobby- I voluntarily read and critique dissertation proposals and drafts for folks who haven’t been getting enough guidance. Through the past 30 years I’ve read dissertations from a lot of folks, and almost all of them have been white women or women and men of color and I want to know why. It’s easy to say racism or sexism or both but that’s simplistic and not helpful. I want Andrea and me to dig deeper and explore our own perspectives and those of others- toward what is going on with good and bad cross-race mentoring in graduate school.
I (Andrea) am a biophysicist by training and a mischief-maker at heart. Having left lab science for policy my career focus has shifted to facilitating the practice of science--and people are at this heart of its practice. Academic science, in my opinion, seems to have a talent management problem. My perspectives on and interests in this topic are personal, intellectual, and professional. One key area to explore is that of graduate recruitment and "education". Why the focus on gender or race? Well, as a Black female it is somewhat personal. By many measures attempts to achieve diversity in the academic ranks has been a failure. But then again, although I'm not an academic or a researcher, I don't feel that I've failed. Moreover, I know that my educational outcome is indistinct from that of so many doctoral students (regardless of race and gender). So perhaps it's narcissism, perhaps it's intellectual curiosity, perhaps it's determination to "make things right". Still, I need to decide what significance I can take from my own experience, from that of others, and from the data. As with everything in life, race does matter. So does gender. But does it have to be a hindrance to anyone or a roadblock to achievement?
We (Pat and Andrea) are looking forward for our first “real” post and hope you will join the conversation.