The power of group mentoring

I had the opportunity in November 2012 to attend the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America (all of my academic degrees are in the geosciences), and I was able to attend a session titled “Women in Geology Mentor Program.”  This mentoring program for students is a regular feature of this annual meeting.  After developing a women’s leadership program on my campus last spring, I was interested in seeing how this one worked.

I was amazed by the number of women who came to this event.  The room overflowed with women geologists.  Most of them, but certainly not all, were students.  Every square foot of surface area (aside from the small stage) was filled with women sitting in chairs, standing along the walls, and sitting on the floor, listening to what the five speakers had to say.  The diversity among the speakers was impressive.  They were at various stages of their careers, from a new hire at an oil company to a senior leader with the U.S. Geological Survey.  One was an assistant professor at a liberal arts college;  another was a senior faculty member at a research university.  And still another was in the midst of a career transition from university administration to educational and outreach programming at a science museum.

In a sense, this was a group mentoring session, with five professional women serving as the mentors and over 120 protégés hanging on every word they said.  They told stories of opportunities, luck, and hard work.  They described setbacks, sponsors, and examples of both good and bad advice.  They spoke of frustration, resilience, and the critical importance of keeping a sense of humor. 

The event was a valuable reminder that mentoring can happen in many ways – and it can be provided by many people in multiple forms.  The pairing of a mentor and protégé is one way to accomplish this, but the larger-scale group format that I witnessed at this professional meeting can also be effective. 

One of the speakers summarized the messages she had heard during the session:

  • Assume paths to success and leadership will be circuitous.
  • Expect serendipity to play a role in your career.
  • Stay open to opportunities that appear unexpectedly.
  • Be patient.
  • Persevere.
  • Focus on your goals – and learn to say “no.”

This mentoring event at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America typically draws between 100 and 150 people.  The feedback forms illustrate the power of a program like this.  Typical comments include “I had no idea there were this many strong women in geology,” “I laughed and I cried at the stories I heard,” and “This session changed my life.”

I’m sure similar sessions and opportunities like this one exist in many academic disciplines.  As we think about ways to promote women’s leadership in higher education, let’s remember the importance of developing leadership within the disciplines.  Not all leadership happens in an administrative or corporate setting, and mentoring young women propagates leadership skills throughout our society, regardless of whether these women pursue careers in higher education, geology, health care, engineering, banking, or any other field.  As evidenced by this program, mentoring can have a powerful influence on people’s lives.Image

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