Interrogating Model Mentoring:

Of Imperfect models, patriarchal remodelling and

the presumption of mentoring as a social good

   Alison Behie and Simone Dennis

Australian National University


In this book, we attune our critical anthropological antennae to a foundational tool used by the academic institution to build and grow success, especially for women: mentoring. Mentoring is ubiquitous. Certainly, our workplace, the Australian National University, has enfolded it into everyday institutional practice. Mentoring is now a highly valuable institutional good that serves to connect those who have accomplished success with those who want to achieve it.  But what, exactly, is mentoring, and how has it come to occupy such a ubiquitous role in creating successful women, in particular? Upon which principles does it depend? What does it produce? Could it produce more than its intended outcome, of producing, particularly female, academic successes? These kinds of questions have not been raised because, as the paucity of critical academic literature immediately suggests, we know little about mentoring beyond the assertion and assumption that mentoring is considered, at its heart, to be a kind of social good. This seems very odd, given its importance in shaping relations, practices and desirable outcomes in academic institutions.

As anthropologists, we are not content to leave the concept and its activity   unexamined. While it is of course the case that we support the laudable effort to produce success for women in an uneven playing field – not least because we are beneficiaries of exactly those efforts — we do not think the paradigmatic view that universities presently embrace for so doing ought to be regarded as unassailable, or its techniques and strategies thus unimprovable.  In our book we reveal some of the hitherto obscured ways in which ostensibly praiseworthy institutional exertions can paradoxically limit and enclose female participants within the patriarchal and other institutional parameters.

The founding principle of mentoring is in part responsible for why mentoring hasn’t been rigorously investigated, both in terms of the concept itself, and as the set of resultant ideas and practices. While there is almost no critical literature on its conceptualisation, its entwinement with political economy and institutional power structure, there is a great deal dedicated to how to carry it out to best effect –a literature, in other words, that does not challenge or make critical investigation of the foundational goodness of mentoring, but which serves only to assess quality of practice and efficacy within that paradigm (Merriam, 1983:169-170; Gulam and Zulfiqar, 1998:4). The concept itself is founded on notions of perfection with Homer’s epic Odyssey being the most frequently cited original source. As Colley (2000) notes, academic contributions on mentoring either focus on the figure of Mentor in the epic (e.g. Anderson & Shannon, 1988); or the figure who is disguised as the mentor, the goddess Athene (e.g., Shea, 1992). In the first case, the Mentor possesses truly visionary perception of his ward’s true potential and grows it by acting as the role model who never deviates from the wisest and most advisable path. The ward observes, replicates, becomes. In the second case, Athene, disguised as Mentor, is the chief figure. As befitting a deity, she is a model of perfection, and serves to guide others towards it. These subtleties and analytic preferences aside, it is clear that perfection – in our case in the form of success—is foundational to conceptualisations of mentoring. This is a concept to which we will return in what follows.  

Perfection is equally writ large in conceptualisations and articulations of mentoring. As women who are now sufficiently successful as to be asked to be models of success for the emulation of our junior colleagues in both structural or individual ways, but who do not see ourselves as perfect models, we were given cause to wonder, what effect does a model of perfection have on women mentors and mentees? What might feminist analyses have to say about such models? What is obscured beneath the model, and what of such obscuration might actually be useful to us as we attempt to guide our early career colleagues into senior scholarship? How can we get at the consequences of infallible presentations of perfection on women leaders (lest they appear weak in a male dominated context) and the consequences of that presentation for their mentees? These are difficult questions to raise from within the paradigm of mentoring. We step outside the paradigm in order to raise them. This is necessary because the founding notion of perfection has meant that only certain kinds of questions can be raised and answered about its operations and effects.

As we have indicated, in our book we attend specifically to the relationship between mentoring and the patriarchy. It is worth drawing this out a little here, in order to introduce several other intertwined ideas that form part of the theoretical underpinning of our work.  

Mentoring is intended to serve as a corrective to the incontrovertible facts of male dominance across the sector and is used in the service of everything from effecting change in the dominance of males in prestige positions to raising the status of women in male-dominated research areas. As is broadly the case across political and business contexts, the contemporary university is deeply concerned with equal female participation across the institution and now, it seems, is especially concerned with supporting women’s’ participation in leadership roles. Across the western world, snapshots reports and longitudinal studies indicate the tenacious grip of male dominance in leadership roles. In 2016, this principal longstanding explanation for its enduring hold was declared to be myth. In that year, the American Council on Education (ACE) Centre for Policy Research and Strategy and its Leadership Programs Division released a joint report that updated key statistics about women in higher education (Johnson, 2016). It closely examined issues like tenure, and representation in high-ranking leadership positions. The report, entitled Pipelines, Pathways, and Institutional Leadership: An Update on the Status of Women in Higher Education was part of the Higher Education Spotlight series, which in turn traces its genesis to The White House Project: Benchmarking Women’s Leadership, published in 2009 (Johnson, 2016).  Back then, the basis of a paucity of female leadership was taken to be ‘the pipeline’ explanation – the notion that too few women were qualified to enter leadership roles. In the 2016 report, though, key data showed very clearly that women were in fact moving steadily through the pipeline and being prepared for leadership positions, indeed at a far greater rate than men, and across the board. Female students were revealed to have earned half or more of all baccalaureate degrees for the past three decades and half of all doctoral degrees for almost a decade. Women were trained and ready, even at the very earliest stages of their careers to move ahead. But despite the number of female graduates available for leadership positions, women were found in the report not to hold associate professor or full professor positions at anywhere near the same rate as their male peers. The pipeline, in other words, appeared to have a serious blockage.

The report then turned to detail the nature of the blockage, finding male faculty members held a higher percentage of tenure positions at every type of institution even though they did not hold the highest number of faculty positions at every rank. Another, more blunt, way of expressing this finding is to say that the more prestigious the position, the fewer the number of female faculty members had tenure. The report’s information brief also found a persistent, tenacious pay gap; during the 2013–14 academic year, male faculty members made an average of USD$85,528, and female faculty members made an average of USD$70,355. No matter the academic rank, men made more than women and were more likely to hold a tenured or tenure track position. The picture remained similarly bleak at leadership levels for both administrative and academic roles. The report and its appeal to corrective action stands metonymically for the state of gendered affairs across the university sector in the west.

The ACE’s Division of Leadership Programs immediately commenced work on unblocking the pipeline, releasing its ‘Moving the Needle’ initiative. The national call-to-action campaign is a corrective to gender bias, and places the responsibility for the lack of female participation at all levels at the top. It asks presidents of colleges, universities and related associations to commit to helping achieve the goal that by 2030 half of US college and university chief executives are women. This required institutions to be alive to the issue and demonstrated structural willingness to correct it by privileging qualified women over men where appropriate, but it was also recognised that women needed to look to those few who had accomplished success on the same level as men. Mentoring was an obvious and immediate mobiliser of solutions to the issue and is presently entailed in intricate and remedial desires and practices regarding destabilising the foundations of patriarchal dominance (Johnson, 2016).  It might not always be able to do that, as is revealed in how motherhood is entailed in conversations about the patriarchy. In her 1974 work now regarded as a disciplinary classic, Sherry Ortner published her breakthrough article “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?”. Therein she proposed an hierarchically organised binary framework in and through which entrenched Western attitudes could be explained by recourse to the attribution of women’s status to a closeness with nature, and men’s with culture and “higher” human activities. An initial problem is that the devalued association of women with nature renders the task of ‘elevating’ women to a level equal with men exceedingly difficult due to the reality of female biology and the perceived universality of male dominance. This problem is certainly recognised in the university complex; the unevenly distributed burden of birthing and care is ‘a career disruption’ that must be rendered visible, comprehensible, explicable, to (both male and female) assessors of promotion applications, and grants proposals. But making these labours visible precisely as a kind of ‘hold up’ has amplified debates about what keeps women from excelling in the patriarchal system, rather than consistently quelling them.  Among many women we interviewed we found in evidence the view that any woman who embraces her nurturing and reproductive capacities might be playing into regressive, patriarchal stereotypes that will keep her in bondage.

We found, too, the idea that the university’s attempts to poke at the patriarchy could be interpreted as imposing on women participants a combative gendered stereotyping that flattened out differences among women in favour of clearly marking and even extending the differences between women and men; and to hand women and men an identity that is symbolic, timeless, and archetypal.  For those who saw things this way, the development of a specific individuality unique to each researcher became nigh on impossible to articulate to a roomful of promotions assessors who might only be capable of seeing the triumph of the woman in a man’s world. The complications kept coming. What if one didn’t want to have children? Would a woman be viewed as less accomplished and less triumphant relative to colleagues with kids? Would she have had sufficient to overcome, enough to balance, if compared? Would she be judged like a man? What if one did want to have kids? When would be the best time to ‘be disrupted’?  And as for men? Would their parental labour ever count inside the bubble of the matriarchy myth? These kinds of questions of course buy directly in to the model we mentioned earlier – the model of the successful woman who triumphs despite hardships.

It is evident that we see mentoring as lively and productive, and with the capacity to do things beyond its institutionally defined station. Implied here is mentoring as it is institutionally imagined and enacted has a lively, active character that does not always produce what is intended for it, and often escapes its institutionally envisioned bounds. Indeed, we think that despite the laudable intentions that impel mentoring programs that they could produce some fairly sinister unintended consequences. None of this is to suggest that mentoring is a social ill that ought to be swept out of institutions – we resist this pole just as much as we resist that which positions mentoring as unassailably good. Instead, we attend closely to the lively ways in which mentoring operates in the institutional world in practice, in a fine grained analysis of the experiences of academic women located at all institutional levels, and in close analysis of the productions the university dispenses of mentoring – its texts, its vision statements, its core, stated values.

The study

Our parallel trajectories have provided rich data that consistently maps on to the experiences of other academic women beyond our institution and our national borders. Our study takes in a range of institutions from across UK, Canada, USA and Australia within which we accessed both senior academic women mentoring their juniors (a term that may not in fact indicate age seniority) and mentees who were the recipients of mentoring. In addition, we sourced formal written and verbally expressed ideas about mentoring, about ‘the patriarchy’ and about the institutional positions on gendered participation, which we utilise in our forward chapters. Our mentee and mentor participants completed an initial survey about their experiences of each (and some were indeed included in both surveys, being both mentor and mentee). For those who chose to continue their participation, we conducted an open- ended interview to more deeply explore the kinds of experiences the participants had flagged. We developed an iterative coding system that eventually yielded the main themes we explore in our substantive chapters as they are set out below. Our study took place over 12 months and included a total of 100 participants.  We spent in situ time with our participants, attending to their unspoken demeanours, the spaces in which they were located, the mundane and often overlooked elements of institutional being that yielded such rich results. As Simone has found in her twenty-year investigation of the governance of tobacco smoking in Australia, and has Alison has noticed over the course of her distinguished career in observing the responses primates make to their socio-environmental conditions, there is much to be found in these disattended practices of life in place. We detail these attendances, and those others we have described in the foregoing in the following section, in which we link them to the specific chapters that collectively articulate the overarching aim of our book: to get underneath the act of good citizenship that promulgates the corrective technique of mentoring across existing patriarchal structures, undergirding them as much as it disrupts and troubles them.

Structure of the book

In the first chapter, we make a detailed examination of the rise of the mentor in institutional context, and how the role has become an institutional mainstay. We closely examine the extremely complimentary literature on mentoring beyond its claimed value in favour of identifying to what institutional service the mentor role might be put. We argue that the social good of the mentor has effectively staved off sustained critique of the role and its outcomes, and that this may well be in the service of the institutions that it serves. Our investigation does not conclude that mentoring ought to be summarily dismissed from institutional structure on the grounds that it merely services the interests of the powerful; we instead take the position that how it operates and who it serves is best drawn from the data collected from our individual participants in all manner of mentoring contexts, something we take up specifically in all of our substantive chapters.

In the second chapter, we make a sustained examination and detailed analysis of that which mentoring ostensibly seeks to correct: the patriarchy.  How is this baseline condition imagined by the institutions we examined in specific relation to women? How are they told about it, taught to confront it? What kinds of contradictions, inconsistencies and problematics are enfolded into such remarks? We reveal that ‘the patriarchy’ is a complex, complicated term deployed in multiple ways that can both disservice and service another complicated notion: men’s interests and women’s interests. These terms, too, are utilised in really complicated ways that are anything but straightforward binary interests. We argue in this chapter that how these notions are institutionally performed and narrated as key stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are at least as important to understand as what they ostensibly stand for, and they deeply inform lively mentoring practices and procedures and embodied academic demeanor.

Our third chapter traces how mentors in all manifestations of the role take up and operationalise what they take to be the role of the mentor. In the context of our previous chapters, we search for those complex understandings and activities of power and patriarchy, but we equally find contradictions in the labour of the mentor as she prosecutes her role. The data in this chapter is the result of the reflexive ways in which mentors reflected on their labour and reveals not only their understandings of institutional expectations as they are provided to mentees, but equally of the way their own selves were formed in institutional mould. For some, this was an experience unrealised until our questions were put. In interesting ways, mentors provided critiques of that moulding and how they could, after the fact, see institutional hallmarks on their own practice – some of which they regarded as positive outcomes, some of which they wished to remove and resist. These data and our analysis of them again imply a liveliness of mentoring and the notion that it might and can be reflexively adjusted and enacted differently in the future.  

In the fourth chapter, we consider in similar terms the experiences and reflections of mentees. In the very act of becoming, of being made into institutional citizens by way of the models that mentoring produces, these data are crucial. We have said several times that we begin from the position that models do not simply provide a template for action – they create. Not least, as we have suggested, they might create order in the form of docile institutional bodies – but they create much more than that. In this chapter, we reveal how models create academic bodies, notions, imaginaries, actions, and we detail all manner of consequences of those.

In this chapter, we pay particular attention to all those latent and unreflected upon habits of expression and demeanour we heard about as audience members in the women-only promotion session, alongside the more evident advisements flow from mentor to mentee. We argue that these former data reveal the deep structures lying beneath, the rules for the institutional game of success, as it were, and how they are internalised by academic bodies. We are fascinated by how attendees to a women-only academic promotion session were implored to ‘use verbs to describe your work, like men do, instead of passive description, like women tend to do’. This commonly dispensed linguistic advice altered us to how mentoring is vested deep within habitual practice – something that makes its propensity to power worthy of our sustained academic attention. While one way of conceptualising how mentoring activity ‘gets into bodies’ is in and through examples that ironically implore women to utilise fully the masculine activity of language, we are also interested in this chapter in what other habits might be understood to hold women back. Did it, and could it, matter how women appeared, spoke, expressed themselves? Would their body language matter in the promotion interview? Would mentors dispense advice on how to use the voice to command a room, a group of people? What would they tell their mentees about crying in the institutional context – something that came up in our data time and again as informants talked with us about emotional demeanour. Further to that, could the spaces they occupied – the offices that were often smaller than those of their male counterparts, particularly if they were shared offices for sessional or contract staff, ever be regarded as merely the backdrop against which the social action of leadership was awaited, or could it and did it have real effects on how they did things, how they appeared to the university?  We draw into our analysis scholarship on the often-overlooked world of material humilities, including techniques du corps, as Mauss (1934) described them, habits of language and expression, and the role of the material accoutrements of success (including the lack of them). Drawing on numerous scholars — from Webb Keane (2007) to Daniel Miller (1987) to Marcel Mauss (1934),– we look behind the obvious – yet apparently not quite sufficient – academic and teaching productions and measures to the less evident, but highly influential embodiments of success and its absence. We draw on our interviews with and observations of mentees, with those who await success, to ask what anticipations – material, spatial, financial, emotional, embodied — both reflect and animate the academic body in waiting and how they got it to perform, using the models of perfection they were asked to emulate, to deal with their shortcomings.

Our penultimate chapter draws together the findings of our substantive chapters to essentially refigure the present understanding of mentoring and its operational models as a social good. We attempt to nuance and complexify this picture with rich data drawn from the very thick of mentoring practice – from its perfect models to its mentee recipients. It is here that we preface the concrete steps our research has yielded for actually overcoming the hegemonic structures that “keep women in their place” despite the rhetoric of equality universities embrace, and despite the significant human and financial resource investments that are deployed in the principles and practices of mentoring to correct it.

We begin with the notion, issuing from Colley’s (2003) work, Mentoring for Social Inclusion, that narrations of mentoring circulating around a sense of social goodness, and as a unifier of all women in a collective struggle against masculine power.  We are particularly interested here in how mentoring is ‘defended’ as the way forward in the fight, and the ways in which good or bad mentors live up to or corrupt its potential, along with the ways in which mentoring is conceptualized, when it is good, as a kind of gift.

Again, we arrive at the idea that mentoring may not be, unassailably or straightforwardly, a social good. Were we to reveal the generosity of typically memorialized others (the sessional academic, the tutor, the woman advised to refuse nothing), so as to demonstrate her willingness to be a good member of the institution in the hope of securing a better role in the future, we would reveal the deeply asymmetrical foundations upon which the concept itself is based, and the conditions under which mentees are recognized as such.

We use the term body here purposefully, to express and reiterate our concern with the use of narratives and their relation to the gendered class struggle we mentioned earlier, and the impossibility of extracting those from the binding, shared consciousness of struggle that does not permit analysis of a fundamental problem with the hierarchical structuring of mentoring that bears much similarity to that patriarchal hierarchy it attempts to dislodge.

We return her to the ways not only in which female bodies are taught to acquire the bearing of successful bodies, habits and techniques, including the use of the active voice that can articulate the active, accomplishing body on the rise, but also to the less evident ways in which bodies occupy the spaces and temporalities of the body that has not yet ‘made it’. Languishing in tiny, shared spaces, expressing the anxiety of being peripheral, feeling corporeal discomfort in the presence of powerful others, all manifest in stances and habits that locate and physicalize the operation of social and gendered inequity — as well as the openness to others that would enhance possibilities for overcoming it. We examine here the insights analytic attendance to marginalized bodies and their habits and bearings permits into the relations of power as they are corporeally enacted in institutional settings and in the case of mentoring in particular.

Our work of in this chapter begets a final chapter, in which we speculate on the ways in which mentoring might be pressed into a different kind of service in the university to better accomplish its goals of achieving success, and to correct institutional powers that repress the sustained ascendancy of its female participants. Knowing more about the bases upon which modelling and mentoring rest will help us to develop more precise ways of elevating women in the university and, potentially, in all kinds of employment contexts, and our recommendations reach towards that promise. To undertake this work, we take the sum of our internationally collected data and bring it to bear on our own home institution as the initial site for implementation of a new approach to mentoring, which we will trial there.


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