30 Apr 2021

Leadership lessons from women academics — why men and women need female mentors

Research group leaders in the Department of Immunology and Pathology
share their thoughts on mentoring. L-R upper row: A/Prof Margaret Hibbs,

Prof Nicola Harris, A/Prof Natasha Smallwood, Prof Anne Holland;
L-R lower row: Prof David Tarlinton, A/Prof Menno van Zelm,
Dr Malcolm Starkey.
by Drs Zhoujie Ding and Jessica Borger*
Central Clinical School, Monash University

The topic of women in science usually draws immediate mention of Marie Curie, the first person to win two Nobel Prizes, first in Physics in 1903 (with her husband Pierre), and then in Chemistry in 1911. Or more recently, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier’s ground-breaking work in gene editing, which won them the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Their win marked the first time a science‐related Nobel Prize was shared by women and no men. 

Many other remarkable women have made revolutionary contributions to the advancement of science over the years, yet fail to get acknowledged equally, such as Rosalind Franklin, who was only recognized posthumously for identifying the double helical structure of DNA, a fundamental biological discovery for which her male colleagues, James Watson and Francis Crick, were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1953. 

In this article, based on the recent publication “Trailblazing Women in Immunology in Australia and New Zealand”, the Central Clinical School's (CCS) Gender Equity Diversity Inclusion (GEDI) committee asked the research group heads of the Department of Immunology and Pathology about women scientists who have inspired them through both their research, mentoring, and leadership.

The United Nations has identified that women only make up 30% of the global pool of academic researchers, with a disproportionate number of male professors. For example, 47% of Level A and Level B academic staff in the disciplines of Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM) at Monash University are women, yet representation in senior academic roles is far from parity, with 38% of Associate Professors and 23% of Professors in STEMM faculties at Monash University being women. As a consequence, gender differences in effective leadership are out of sync, with a prevalence of male leaders, whilst studies show women perform better as leaders, in particular during a crisis.

In general, there are far more obstacles for women in STEMM including societal barriers, workplace culture, implicit and unconscious bias, as well as limited networking opportunities. All these and more influence the attrition of women from academia. Besides additional carer and household duties, female academics are also often tasked with increased pastoral care at work and committee representation. Because women aren’t promoted as quickly as male colleagues, there appear to be fewer opportunities for women to mentor junior academics of any gender. Nevertheless, women still participate in mentoring, educational and committee activities more frequently than males, representing their earlier identification and aspiration of leadership with the University. Although these roles can largely be seen as invisible roles, at the CCS they are highly regarded by the Head of School and Executive committee, demonstrating broad leadership skills extending far beyond those in research, and significant contributions to the Monash University strategic plan to achieve international excellence in research and education that will be developed from a deeply internationalised, enterprising and inclusive University.

Through female academics’ additional roles in education and student committees, women are developing invaluable skills to lead and mentor through inspiration/motivation, transforming people’s attitudes and beliefs, and aligning people with meaning and purpose rather than through assertiveness, self-promotion and other qualities women get told to “lean in” to. Nurturing a change in beliefs rather than behaviours, or transformational leadership, is linked to higher levels of team engagement, performance, and productivity. Similarly, women lead through empathy, not by commanding, fostering their teams’ wellbeing and unlocking their full potential. Female leaders have been proven to be more likely to coach, mentor, and develop their direct reports than male leaders, using feedback and direction to help people grow. This means being less transactional and more strategic in their relationship with team members, promoting effective cooperation on their teams.

We have perfect examples for women leadership in academia at the CCS's Department of Immunology and Pathology.  

Here is what they think of taking on additional education/clinical/mentoring roles and what one can benefit from having both female and male mentors.

Professor Nicola Harris, Lab Head of Intestinal Immunology and PhD coordinator at CCS, thinks that taking on extensive education and mentoring focused roles is her providing a ‘service’ for the University. It is her genuine belief that all senior scientists have a responsibility to do so and she finds taking on these roles very fulfilling. Whilst research offers great stimulation and satisfaction the fruits of one’s efforts can take some time (months or even years) to reveal themselves. By contrast the impact of her work as PhD co-ordinator is much more obvious and immediate and as such can be very motivating. On the other hand, every day in her role as a lab head (for the past 15 year or so) has required a careful but flexible approach to juggling lab projects and student/staff supervision, administrative duties, community orientated activities (reviewing, editing, conference organisation) and family commitments. She said that ‘Learning to ‘juggle’ different commitments is the cornerstone of any senior scientists’ success’. Talking about mentorship, Nicola said that mentors are absolutely key and of course having both male and female mentors offers a very easy way to increase diversity. However, diversity can and should also come from mentoring from different levels (i.e. from both postdocs and senior scientists mentoring PhD students) and different sources (institutions, countries, disciplines). Nothing is more destructive to scientific innovation than becoming ‘institutionalised’ and a very easy way to expose oneself to other points of views and experiences is to seek diverse mentorship.

Associate Professor Margaret Hibbs, Lab Head of Leukocyte Signalling and Honours coordinator at CCS, told us that she really enjoys working with students and helping them to grow, and she sees her role as Honours Coordinator as a very important one―some of these students could be our future scientific leaders. Thus, she allocates time for this in her schedule as part of her normal responsibilities. She also gains great satisfaction to see some of the students that she has had an overarching responsibility for as Honours coordinator, and indeed the students she directly supervised, develop into independent thinkers and scientists. She said that ‘research is my key focus, but having fulfilment in my education role makes it so much easier to find time to devote to it’. Talking about the importance of female and male mentorship, Margaret confessed that throughout her career, she has never truly had a female mentor. Her most important mentor was the director of the Ludwig Institute, Prof Tony Burgess, who was really ahead of his time and incredibly supportive of women in science, offering her much encouragement and assistance to establish her lab at a very full and busy time in her life with a new baby and a toddler. However, she also said that ‘At times earlier on in my career I could have really benefitted from a female mentor, in what was then, a very male dominated profession. Having someone to talk to who had been through exactly the same situation that I was then experiencing would have been extremely helpful, but then, I could have been more proactive and sought this out. I had no spare time and simply put my head down and worked hard, and this probably worked against me. I was very lucky to have an incredibly supportive partner and we had tremendous help from our extended family, who supported both of our careers. Although I did not have this experience, I do believe that having a balance of male and female mentors is important as we do think about things differently and come at issues from different angles―to see things from alternate points of view is always valuable. However, what is most important is to have a mentor you feel comfortable talking to and opening up with, whether that be male or female.’

Associate Professor Natasha Smallwood, a group leader and a strong clinician holding a joint role at Department of Allergy, Immunology and Respiratory Medicine and Department of Immunology and Pathology, told us that being involved in multiple roles can be challenging: “I have been predominantly a clinician for 22 years and just made the decision to cut back on some of my clinical load, in order that I could focus more on research, supervising trainees and students, and leadership. So, I have reduced from 5 clinical sessions each week (which was a lot of clinics!) to 3. For me that was hard as I particularly enjoy my interactions with patients, it is an absolute privilege to care for people with severe lung disease.  I think at various times you need to readjust what your priorities and 5-year goals and re-adjust your work. However, that said, I do believe that clinicians are only authentic as clinician-researchers if they keep doing some clinical medicine, not just research. Otherwise, you lose the understanding of the daily challenges of practicing clinical medicine. I still find it an absolute struggle to manage everything else, all my leadership roles, committees, etc and I have three children. Being extremely organised helps, but the reality is (and children are used to this now) is that I work most evenings and part of the weekend.” She also shared her mentor-searching story: “Mentors are essential and despite searching for one for my entire career I only found mine about five years and even then, I did not recognise him as that initially, as he was my supervisor. Now he is my mentor and sponsor, the latter being a key person you want in your life. A sponsor recognises your skills and tell others about you and what you can offer. They will often directly suggest to you what your next career move should be and how to get there. Men often have sponsors much more than women, but we absolutely need them too. They are like unicorns (i.e. mythical non-existent creatures), so once you find your own don’t let go and trust in them! I should stress that the gender of your mentor or sponsor is irrelevant, it is your ability to listen to, talk to and trust someone that is key.”

Professor Anne Holland, also holding a joint role at Monash University and Alfred Health and being a clinician-researcher, told us how she has managed her multiple roles: “How we spend our time reflects what we think is important. Treating patients and mentoring early career researchers are priorities for me, because without those things I would have no research program at all. But I do reserve one day a week for important research tasks, primarily by not accepting any routine meetings on that day.” She emphasized
that as researchers we are constantly having to change, adapt and reinvent, so it's really helpful to have a diverse range of mentors who can support that and those many different types of mentoring relationships (research, leadership, personal development, gender issues) have varied across her career.

We also asked three questions to the male research group heads at the department:

  • Acknowledge a female immunologist who has inspired you.
  • What benefits have you received from your female mentors?
  • The importance you believe in having mentors that are both male and female.

Professor David Tarlinton, Department Head and Lab Head of Immune Memory, acknowledged Dr Patricia Jones who was a lecturer in Immunology during his PhD. David told us that Patricia “was an exceptional educationalist and inspired me to pursue Immunology as a research discipline”. He also acknowledged Prof. Leonore Herzenberg, who was his PhD co-supervisor. He said that “She promoted an unconventional approach to science, being something of an iconoclastic free-thinker rather than being confined by existing dogma. For better or worse, Lee (and her husband Len, my other supervisor) promoted science as a fully immersive experience where there was no distinction between work and non-work, everything was part of a continuum. I learned a lot from both Lee and Len”. Talking about what he has got out from the female mentors, David said “A sense of the value of being positive in appraising both myself and others”. He explained that “Most of my male mentors have been quite critical of everything, sometimes in quite public settings. While recognising the generalisation in this, I think my female mentors (excluding Lee and including those who have been what I would call indirect mentors) have been much more positive in their assessment of people and outcomes. They tend to highlight the positives rather than look for the things that are wrong. I think you need a bit of both but ultimately, people respond better to aspirational goals rather than avoiding criticism. One approach encourages initiative and independent thinking the other can lead to caution and avoidance of being wrong. Having said that, from two of my male mentors (Klaus Rajewsky and Len Herzenberg) I learned the value of critical thinking and of blunt speaking. Not that these are male attributes, far from it, they seem to be more in keeping with scientists of a certain stature and age, which means mostly they are men. I certainly experienced it most directly from these two men, but I certainly witnessed it from women professors in my PhD department who were as critical and blunt as either of Klaus or Len”.

Associate Professor Menno Van Zelm, Lab Head of B Cell Differentiation, acknowledged Prof Leonore Herzenberg, for her memorable friendliness, kindness and support for the other speakers in a conference session and his direct PhD supervisor, Dr Mirjam van der Burg. He told us that Mirjam “has made a lasting impact on my career. She was tough, critical, but also very caring and interested at a personal level. What I really admire is that after my PhD, we remained colleagues for a long time and treated each other as equals.” Menno points out that it is important to have diversity in the workplace. This involves any aspect, whether it be gender, cultural background, international visitors etc. This exposes everybody to a much bigger picture, and equips the group with a great capacity tackle scientific challenges from various angles.

Dr Malcolm Starkey, Lab Head of Immunology and Regenerative Medicine, acknowledged Prof. Carola Vinuesa (Australian National University) and Prof. Gabrielle Belz (University of Queensland) as the female mentors that important to his career. He said that their “Open minded big picture thinking, skills in balance and efficiency and the ability to give way so as to conquer. Plus unconditional support in all my endeavours” is what he received from them. Malcolm emphasized that having both male and female mentors is “Absolutely crucial” and “Balanced mentorship that covers the full depth and breadth of your research passions and visions is extremely valuable”.

These comprehensive responses clearly demonstrate that there are valuable differences between female and male mentors. Research also shows that because men and women are socialized differently — men to be more aggressive and assertive, women to be more submissive and nurturing — they approach mentor-mentee relationships from entirely different perspectives. In most of the cases, men will mentor a junior employee with less thought about rapport or the bond. Meanwhile, women will spend more time trying to establish that trust on the front end of the relationship. However, what everyone agrees is that, the most beneficial way is to have both female and male mentors, so that balanced and diverse opinions can be gained, which will lead to a greater success.

*About the authors:

L-R: Dr Zhoujie (Zoe) Ding (Department of Immunology and Pathology Research Officer) and Dr Jessica Borger (CCS Lecturer and Course Coordinator of graduate studies)

We welcome your feedback! Please contact the CCS GEDI committee (Monash authcate access only). 

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