Formalising mentoring to reach gender equity

It could be the coffee, but I think breakfast meetings are my new favourite way to work. It felt productive to be walking along with many others in George St at 7:00 on my way to the QVB for the Franklin Women breakfast event on mentoring. This rapidly growing organization of women in health and medical research has only just turned one, which surprised me given the publicity and positive response they have already received. The breakfast was the first FW event I’ve been able to attend and I’m now looking forward to the next one.


As a mother of two children who is approaching the end of the first year of an MD, I’m sometimes exhausted, and often overwhelmed by decisions about which way to direct my energies when I get spare time. Do I squeeze in grocery shopping or extra study before it’s time to pick up the kids from daycare? If I choose to study, do I read some background literature on my MD research project topic (post-partum haemorrhage) or should I review the lecture notes on leukaemia? Or do I make time for extracurricular work, like website maintenance for the Sydney University Surgical Society? And how do all these decisions fit in with my larger plan for career and family life?


This morning’s breakfast helped me to adopt a transparent viewpoint that I’ve been unable to access in months. Talking about the need for mentoring and practical strategies for implementing and maintaining a mentor-mentee relationship was refreshing, not because it’s a new subject, but because it comes at an ideal time for me in this first year of re-entry to full-time work away from the home after becoming a mother.


I’ll try to distil some of the helpful messages that I received from the women today in the hope that the encouraging conversation can be shared.


Women need to overcome risk aversion. This is a familiar thought if you’ve been following the conversation about why women don’t receive promotions. Maud Lindley from Serendis gave the example of a woman who was being considered for a top promotion in her company but did not think she was likely to get the job. She’d been hearing from her (male) supervisor about the formidable skills and expertise needed for the role and thought that he must be talking about some other person. In fact, he was talking about qualities she already possessed, and the ultimate reason she didn’t get the job was because the boss felt she didn’t want the role after their conversations in which she discussed her experience but didn’t demonstrate her ‘passion’ or ‘drive’. Lindley’s lesson: put your hand up more often for more and bigger roles, and you might just get them.


Identify priorities in work and life. Lindley approached the chimeric ‘work-life balance’ idea refreshingly, reminding us that we can take control over the perceived problem of having it all. Professor Michelle Haber shared her experience in building your career by simultaneous investments of time (spent at work) and money (spent on child care). Ensuring your children’s needs are met while you are at work means that when you come home you can, as Haber put it, ‘kiss them, put them in the bath and sing to them, and continue to work after the children are in bed if you want to’. In later years, the work seniority gained from this early investment brings increased flexibility to fulfill your priorities, such as by scheduling regular, sacrosanct family holidays among a busy working year. This seems to me like a valuable strategy in the age of the wife drought.

A woman in work attire talks to a man cooking at a bench and a teenage school student looks on.

Ask for and facilitate systemic support. Aside from the obvious challenges of combining parenthood with careers, it was suggested that another reason for the lack of women in top-level positions is that women opt out of seniority because they want to avoid the stress it entails. I think this is a fair enough possibility: my interest in a surgical career sometimes founders alongside fears of bullying and isolation within the predominantly male surgical community. But does it have to be this way? Why not remove the stress? This is where mentoring is a key solution. The perhaps hackneyed idea of ‘being the change you want to see in the world’ is nevertheless usefully encompassed in mutually beneficial, strategic, and enduring relationships between people with developing and established careers. These mentoring partnerships don’t and shouldn’t be restricted to one sex, and in fact the suggestion was made to specifically involve men with daughters in weaving formal mentoring systems together. But dollars and institutional clout also need to be behind an increase in mentoring in workplace culture. A pilot university mentoring scheme I once participated in started well, but petered out with no formal guidance behind the program, and the encouragement and advice I was given about developing my research career was parched by a lack of opportunity to capitalize on it imposed by institutional and funding limitations. In other words, lip service and enthusiasm aren’t enough.


I’m reminded of a gap that I always see in the conversation around boosting science literacy. There are often calls for better science and technology education among school age kids. But in my community, there is no decline in children’s curiosity and enthusiasm about science and experimentation. Similarly, most women I meet are committed to intellectual growth, entrepreneurship, or creativity in some way. Exhortations to boost science interest, while commendable, are therefore only a fraction of a useful strategy for first-class science and technology development, which requires active participation from both genders. When women still only represent a small percentage of CEOs and are far less likely than men to receive funding for health and medical research, all of the enthusiasm about primary school science amounts to an illusion of rainbows and bumblebees.


A person dressed as a bumblebee opens a gate into a perceived world of other bumblebees just like him/her.

More positively, the Australian pilot of the Athena SWAN charter began this month. It represents a comprehensive and practical strategy to improving gender equity. As Professor Maree Teeson said today, it will be our daughters, the next generation, who will bring about and benefit from this improvement – let’s hope it comes soon.

2 thoughts on “Formalising mentoring to reach gender equity

  1. Thank you for sharing the gist of the event Leonara. I believe at some point we all all struggle to decide where to put our energies. Listening to other people’s experience helps to keep motivated.

  2. Hi, Surabhi. Thanks for your comment. I agree – it is hard to identify the best uses for our energy and time. I also benefit from hearing other people’s experiences – it’s so much nicer to feel part of a community of people all working around their challenges.

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