In my recent post on dealing with (or failing to do so) inappropriate remarks, the importance of mentoring was raised by Jenny Koenig. She said
This is where mentoring is really important: to have someone else to listen and to reassure you that it’s not your fault.
I agree that mentors may be able to help here, but I think this touches on a wider issue of blame, victimisation and internalising situations which are, as she says, not your fault. So I’d like to expand on these ideas, using a very specific example of something that happened to me a number of years ago. At the time it made me realise how easy it is to get trapped into believing that someone else’s actions were legitimate – when they palpably weren’t – and why it is that some battered wives take upon themselves blame for the way they are treated, something that up till that point I had never really understood.
The situation occurred at a conference at which I had given an invited talk about my work on starch – from which you will deduce it wasn’t that early in my career – and took place after the conference dinner in the bar. I was relaxed, my talk had (I thought) gone well; at least people had been quite complimentary about it. A senior male attendee came up and started talking to me about it, someone definitely ahead of me in the scientific hierarchy, and very quickly he started getting obnoxious. He clearly thought it was witty to associate the work I did on the physics of starch with ‘domestic science’; he felt it was legitimate to make fun of my work, and me as a scientist, by demeaning serious physics as mere cookery, implying that that was the only sort of work I would be capable of doing as a woman. Mercifully, at this distance in time I forget the full details of his diatribe. Any attempt by me to counter what he was saying, by stressing the excitement and relevance of what I was doing as a serious physicist, was simply talked down. I then did something I can’t ever remember doing at any other time – I simply walked out of the bar, feeling most upset by the occurrence.
Luckily for me I was not alone in this conversation. My friend and former Cambridge colleague Richard Jones was also present and stayed behind with this bloke in the bar after I had left. Next morning I asked him about what had happened thereafter. It turned out the diatribe had continued, including comments such as
‘it must be awful to work with a woman like that’,
leading to Richard also eventually walking out. But what was really helpful for me was the way Richard was able to put the conversation in context for me.
Already, within about 12 hours, I was starting to question what had happened. Had it been my fault? Had I done something that provoked the vitriol? Was I to blame? Maybe I was ‘guilty’ of something intangible so that there was a rational explanation for the vicious remarks. At that point I began to realise how easy it is to blame yourself for someone else’s shortcomings, to assume responsibility and so exonerate the genuinely guilty party – exactly how battered wives respond to much more serious abuse, physical and mental. Putting this to my friend was immensely reassuring. He had seen the way the whole conversation developed from the outset to my departure; had then himself been at the receiving end of continuing unpleasantness. He could tell me in no uncertain terms I was not to blame, and I mustn’t start seeing myself as at fault; the other person was indubitably the guilty party. Had I not had a witness, the damage done to my sense of self would have been much greater.
In this case, I don’t think a mentor would have been anything like as useful. Someone saying ‘I’m sure it wasn’t your fault’ when they hadn’t heard the dialogue could not have carried so much weight as someone physically present during the whole affair. Because, of course, this was all about context and verbal connotations not actions. A mentor can help when it comes to something more concrete, can provide advice for how to go forward with career planning, decisions about whether to attend one conference or another and how to present one’s CV. They cannot say with authority when they weren’t there, that one was not blameworthy when an unpleasant situation develops.
The bar at night is not always a good place to be, true for men as well as women when dealing with people who have drunk more than is good for them. Masks slip and the poison can leach out. It is of course – away from academic situations – where fights break out, though I don’t think I ever recall seeing people coming to blows at conferences! But it can be an uncomfortable place for the nervous and junior and, as I have discovered, for the not so junior. Drunks can be obnoxious the world over. I was lucky to have support to hand on this particular occasion.
Support comes in many forms and I feel rather strongly we should not assume that finding the right mentor is the overarching solution. Firstly, mentors often don’t come labelled as such. They may come in many forms ranging from peers just that little bit ahead of you on the career ladder – perhaps a grad student just a year ahead has the necessary pearls of wisdom you need at that particular juncture – to senior professors who are willing to spend time handing advice out to those at earlier stages (or indeed their contemporaries; one never ceases to need advice) in some particular situation. It doesn’t have to be in an ongoing role. Secondly, if mentors are seen as the solution, then frustration may set in if your particular institution does not run a formal programme, rather than each person seeking out advice in disparate corners as appropriate. Finally, as in the situation I describe here, a mentor may not always provide the optimum support structure. This may be for all kinds of reasons including the fact that you may simply not click with a formally assigned mentor. What matters is that each individual can find appropriate networks of support in whatever shape or form works for them and their place of work.