How Not to Suck at Being a Male Supervisor of Female Students

Often I make recommendations for graduate students or supervisors. This entry is about sharing problems that do not have a one-size-fits-all solution. As always, I am not an expert and clearly do not have everything figured out. There are errors, failures, and horrible decisions on my part. Hopefully, these stories will be helpful for others.

One of the many benefits that I have received from being a scholar on Twitter is that I follow a large number of female scholars and experts in feminist theory. This has been an eye-opening experience. I have been made aware of the challenges that female scholars face. I am more than a little embarrassed that I had no idea that female scholars routinely face harassment, lack of earned respect, intimidation, hostile environments, threats, and even physical dangers. As an academic, we are diminished by losing such intellectual talent to this environment. As a human, we are just diminished.

Many of my role models are female scholars such as Nadine Lambert at UC-Berkeley, Marta Bogdanowicz of University of Gdansk, and Brenda Milner of McGill University. I am in a field that is mostly female in clinical practice and increasingly female in academia. We are fortunate to have many female leaders and a strong culture of outstanding and respected female scholars. Although admittedly naïve, I understand that my female students face challenges and risks that male students do not; moreover, they may also face disadvantages because they have a male supervisor.

There are some basics that have nothing to do with gender. I have a general philosophy to hold people to high expectations, give support, and treat everyone with respect. Independent, initiating, and strong people tend to have better outcomes. All students have different goals and I negotiate expectations to meet our mutual needs. If they are not meeting agreed upon milestones, then there is private remediating and renegotiation of goals, establishment of a paper trail of efforts to fix problems, and possible dismissal from my supervision for those not responding.

The culture of the lab is that students work together in a supportive environment. Senior students are expected to model appropriate behaviours and mentor the newer lab members. I often ask for student feedback and input into who to accept into the lab. Empowering students to make decisions helps to create leadership, ownership, and a productive work environment.

There are some issues that are explicitly related to being a male supervisor of female students. For example, some supervisors are extremely close and are even personal friends with their students—especially same sex students and supervisors. I feel that I can never do that with my students. I am not sure that developing such close personal relationships with students is a good idea in any case. Nonetheless, I tend to be friendly, but distant from my students. It is rare for me to have lunch with a student, I do not go drinking with them, and we rarely get together when at the same conferences—unless we have shared professional duties. I like these people. Under different circumstances we could be friends. I am not worried that anything inappropriate would happen; yet heteronormative assumptions are strong and suspicions of male mentors and female students are commonplace. However, avoiding the perception of favour toward a specific student or the slightest suspicion that there is a personal relationship that goes beyond the professional will hurt the reputation of that student and the dynamic of the lab. This distance cannot be only for female students. I keep the same distance from male students as well. It does not seem right to be distant from female students and go out drinking or watching sports with male students.

An unfortunate occurrence is when female students have learned that their best method of working with a male supervisor is via flirtation. This has happened with me on three occasions that I perceived. I never had a thought that this flirtatious behaviour was directed at me or constituted a sexual invitation. These students have simply learned that they can curry favour, reduce expectations and workload, or gain some other advantage when working directly with males who are in a supervisory role. It is too bad that there is a culture in place that taught these students that flirtation is an effective set of behaviours. These students are extremely smart, so clearly this strategy must be effective. I even doubt that they are consciously aware of how their behaviour is perceived. At first, I attempted to protect myself. I never met with these students with my office door closed, kept a physical distance, and avoided these students when possible. Because I am mentoring future professionals, this form of self-protection was irresponsible and maladaptive on my part. We now discuss professional dress and body language when required. Touching hair, excessive laughing, too close of a personal space for the culture, touching the person with whom you are speaking, and revealing dress are not the behaviours of professionals. Good listening skills, appropriate friendliness, and developing a repertoire of productive non-verbal behaviours are the goals. So long as there is no question in anyone’s mind that my sole goal is to improve the professionalism of my students, these approaches are successful in assisting the supervisory relationship to return to equilibrium.

A major fear for me as I moved from clinical work to academic work is that I did not want to become a clichéd creepy middle-aged professor or be perceived as such. I am aware that Just to bring up the topic is a bit creepy. I know four male professors who routinely sleep with their students. They often move from one university to another and are widely acknowledged to be toxic and destructive. That is a level of creepy that I cannot comprehend. I know most of my students would lose respect for me and leave my supervision. Even away from campus, I know many middle-aged professors who troll professional conferences for grad students. I do not typically judge. I know many married people who have same-time-next-year relationships at conferences and that works for them. Hooking up with a younger person is also generally fine, but students are different and I get judgey as hell. The power differential between professors and students is so large as to make these hook-ups seem predatory and generally icky (and many times just pathetic). Being at a conference and out of town are not excuses to engage in unprofessional behaviors that are often destructive for students. My students are adults and do not require a protector or big brother, but we have open discussions about professionalism and reputation management in supervision and at conferences.

My goal is to have open communication with students. I would like them to feel as comfortable as possible to let me know when my behaviour is not appropriate. Most are and some are not at that level of comfort with me. Yes, they have told me that a joke was not appropriate (once) or I should not have written something on Twitter (a few times). The intended atmosphere is that students are free to criticize me or make suggestions. These are not secret issues. We have open discussions about conference behaviour, when students feel that have been treated unfairly on campus or in field work, which aspects of the work environment make them less than fully comfortable, and any concerns about safety. Because I have a good sense that I am fairly naïve and a bit clueless (and am really trying to be smarter); open conversations on the topic of fairness, treatment, and issues in cross gender supervision are all on the table for discussions public and private.

For example, in a previous post on this blog I made a mindless and off-the-cuff comment about women in yoga pants. I received a couple of long comments from readers criticizing that sentence. I did not intend to offend, but I was upset that the comment overshadowed the point I was trying to make. That makes it poor writing, which is an egregious error. We discussed this among a couple of lab members. The consensus was that no one was personally offended, but it was a poorly chosen example. They teach and I will improve.

This is a pragmatic issue, not really a social justice issue. I am not nice. Yet, I know that I will consistently attract and retain the best and most diverse students because I listen to my students. The students in my lab will be more creative, hard working, motivated, and productive because they are valued. I will do my best to support students’ relationships, marriages, and families. I do not understand how a hostile or anti-woman environment makes for better science. This is a marathon and not a sprint. Students will have better long-term career outlooks when they are happy, fulfilled, and have balanced lives.

My primary goal is to support and sometimes push students to accomplish more than they ever thought they could possibly achieve. I am not sure how many opportunities and experiences my female students lose by having a male supervisor. I am not sure if they lose confidence or feel less valued or less supported than my male students. They know that I am a white guy who is privileged and somewhat out of touch; but I understand the responsibilities that accompany my role. The intent is that by having open discussions and keeping basic rules of interaction clear, that I am communicating that I respect and value all of my students. The labbies are wonderful in supporting me to become a better supervisor. The essence of mentorship is shared learning. Continuously seeking to improve, keeping a culture of student co-ownership, and willingness to listen and change are hopefully as important to the people in my lab as anything that our research creates, discovers, and uncovers.

S. R. Shaw


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