Some days I see the #MeToo movement as akin to climate change. Both are making valuable resources dwindle: Climate change is shrinking glaciers and sea ice, while #MeToo is shrinking the pool of mentors for the next generation of physicians. Women need to step up to fill the gap.
I direct the neurology residency in New Hampshire’s only teaching hospital. Several things have prompted me to rethink mentorship of young professionals: the publication of “She Said” by Meghan Twohey and Jodi Kantor; Dr. Julie Silver’s report on persistent gender inequities in neurology; my 25th reunion at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School; and my recent efforts to craft a robust mentoring program. Those and more have me wondering what must be done to help develop the millennials and Gen Z professionals who will define the future.
“She Said” outlines Harvey Weinstein’s predatory mentorship of actresses that was tolerated by a system that covered up pervasive abuse. Silver’s article confirms that progress in gender equity in the areas of compensation, promotion, research funding, and professional recognition through publication and speaking invitation remains slow in my field. My reunion reminded me that just 25 years ago, less than 30% of the members of my rather typical medical school class were women. The world is changing rapidly.
I am encountering some difficulty finding mentors for all of the trainees in our program. There’s the usual — and all-too-real — explanation of not having enough time. But I also think that the #MeToo movement might have broadly altered the landscape of mentorship.
When stories of men in power abusing women came publicly tumbling out, exposing the terrible price some women had paid to secure coveted mentorship, the long-standing image of the ideal mentor suddenly shifted. Senior white men began to question whether they wanted to engage in mentoring at all. For many of them, the risk suddenly outweighed the benefit, as we say in medicine.
The dual impact of well-intentioned men opting out of mentor roles as a result of the #MeToo press and white male mentors being seen in a less-favorable light has led to a dwindling pool of senior male mentors. While awareness education and culture change in the workplace around harassment are great starts to improving mentorship, I did not fully appreciate the enormous opportunity this presents Gen X women to enter the mentoring space. The moment has arrived for them to become mentors for rising millennial and Gen Z professionals.
Full disclosure: I’m part of Gen X. In my early professional life, my mentors were almost exclusively white men. I am grateful for those generous mentors, but acknowledge that there were moments when an experienced guide who better understood the professional challenges I faced as a woman juggling pregnancy, child care, and a long stretch of single parenting might have provided better support and advice. I now find myself working to convince some older men to stay in the mentorship pool, while redoubling my efforts to recruit women and physicians of color.
The problem is that women had not historically been taught that they can be mentors, only that they needed to secure good mentors. Many female physicians tell me they don’t know what they have to offer a mentee. That still surprises me, even though I know that many highly accomplished Gen X women suffer from imposter syndrome.
Leadership training targeted to women has gradually increased the number of women in leadership positions, yet many of them still don’t see themselves as mentors. This may be due in part to the ongoing struggles that many women still face reaching senior positions and earning promotions in a system that remains biased against women, prompting the national #BeEthical call to action.
College and graduate schools are now largely gender balanced. The incoming class at Dartmouth Geisel School of Medicine, where I teach, is 61% women. Across all medical schools, women make up more than 50% of first-year medical students. This trend isn’t limited to medicine. According to the American Bar Association, women represented just over 53% of first-year law students in 2018.
Although millennials now have a growing number of professional women as role models, the messaging around mentorship has not changed in step with the shifting demographics.
The immediate goal for women’s leadership training should be to provide skills for them to be effective mentors to the upcoming generations of physicians while continuing efforts to achieve gender equity at the highest levels of leadership.
Female baby boomers who broke ceilings in business, academia, and politics inspired those who have come after them. Gen X women like me didn’t think it impossible, or even improbable, that we could and should aim high. Yet the mentors we found often did not understand our goals or life realities as we juggled children and an increased burden of household duties and caregiving, as compared to professional men. Women often saw each other as competition for the limited resource of mentors who would further their careers.
Medical and other professional workplaces remain imbalanced with regards to both at-work and after-work realities that influence career trajectories. As mentors, women prefer women and men prefer men. This is not surprising, but it shouldn’t limit our vision of who makes an optimal mentor. For millennial professionals, so-called women’s issues significantly overlap with those most reported that millennials, both male and female, value in a job: work-life balance, finding meaning in work, supporting a working spouse and family, and equity of pay and opportunity. Everyone can benefit from mentors who understand balancing work and life, the corrosive effects of imposter syndrome, and the importance of a diverse workplace.
The face of mentorship needs to change. Now.
Baby boom and Gen X women make good mentors because the combination of successful professional and lived experiences they have is powerful and highly relevant to the realities of the new professional demographics. The flexibility and resourcefulness that led to their successes is exactly what women in leadership have to offer as mentors. We still need senior men to be engaged in mentoring, and all mentorship must be safe and effective, but the days of gender imbalance among mentors must be put behind us as women leaders are now in positions to elevate others with personal support and sponsorship. They just need to extend their hands.
Lara Ronan, M.D. is an associate professor of neurology and medicine at Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College, vice-chair for education in the Department of Neurology at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, and program director for the Dartmouth Hitchcock Neurology Residency. She is a 2019 Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project.