Proof That Mentoring Matters

Study of economists -- complete with control group -- shows impact of coaching women on the process or getting published and winning grants.
January 4, 2010

Many discussions of efforts to diversify the faculty ranks include concerns about whether female and minority academics need mentors. Advocates for female and minority professors say that white men are more likely to learn informally from senior (male) colleagues about how to get ahead. Some skeptics dismiss these ideas, and suggest that the best scholarship gets published and the best academics rise through the ranks.

Academics who have had good mentors have over the years praised their impact, and those without them have talked about falling behind. But is there proof that mentoring matters in launching faculty careers -- and that it could make a difference for faculty diversity?

A study presented in Atlanta Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association may be the first truly random sample to try to test the mentor impact -- and the study may demonstrate that mentoring truly does matter.

The research tracks the careers of women who participated (and some who were turned away from participating) in a mentoring program sponsored by the AEA's Committee on the Status of Women in the Economic Profession. The mentoring program connects junior female economists with senior faculty mentors for a two-day workshop held in conjunction with the economics association's annual meeting. The workshops feature discussions about publishing and grant writing and offer critiques of a draft article or grant proposal. In the study, applicants to the program were randomly selected for participation or to be in the control group, and were told that there was not enough room in the program for all applicants.

Cohorts from 2004 and 2006 have now been tracked for five years and three years, respectively, and the study compares the female economists who received the mentoring and those who didn't -- women who were seen as otherwise having a similar range of abilities. Before participating (or not participating) in the study, those in the group receiving mentoring and in the control group showed no differences in the numbers of grants received or publications.

Comparing the participants and non-participants in the years since the mentoring took place, the study found significant gains for those who received mentoring in three key factors: total number of publications, total number of publications in "top tier" journals, and total number of federal grants won.

The study says that not enough time has passed to see if these achievements translate into higher rates of tenure and promotion. But the paper notes that, historically, the tenure rates for female economists have lagged those of men, and that publication and grants are key to receiving tenure. Some research, the paper says, suggests that mentoring may be particularly important in closing the gender gap in tenure rates. This research suggests that female economists lack the "research networks" of their male counterparts, and notes that even though co-authorship is common in the discipline, female economists are less likely to write pieces with colleagues than are men (even after controlling for publication rates).

While the paper says that more work will need to be done to see if the type of mentoring provided in the study will help more women gain tenure and stay in academe, the results are "encouraging" that such efforts can have a real impact.

The authors of the paper are: Francine D. Blau, the Frances Perkins Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and Labor Economics at Cornell University; Janet M. Currie, the Sami Mnaymneh Professor of Economics at Columbia University; Rachel T.A. Croson, professor of economics at the University of Texas at Dallas; and Donna K. Ginther, professor of economics at the University of Kansas,


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