Are Women Harsher Critics Than Men on Dissertation Committees?

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By Violet Smith

This spring, when I sent two graduate students detailed comments about their dissertations, I also cc’d a colleague. He was their adviser, and I was a committee member, so I thought it a courtesy to provide him a copy.

My comments were quite detailed, and involved a list of suggestions for additional reading. I made a point of putting the names of women and underrepresented scholars on the list, as the students had included very few in their bibliographies. I did not intend my remarks as a critique of my colleague in any way — or at least, it did not occur to me that he would view them as a slight. After all, if I were in his place, I would want to know what kind of feedback my doctoral student was getting from the rest of the dissertation committee.

Unfortunately, that was not the spirit in which my assessment was received. According to my colleague, my comments were "dominating" and, indeed, so damning as to suggest the students’ projects were "hopeless." I was somewhat shocked to hear that, frankly, as I had made a special effort to comment on what both students had done well. I’d even reread my comments several times, and removed or edited any that came off as unduly harsh.

Nonetheless, my colleague said I needed to work on my "mentoring voice" — that I ought to "play nicely, or not at all."

Before you stop reading at this point — in fear of yet another polemic on the double standards of academe and/or the perils of being a woman in a male-dominated field — let me be clear that my main aim in writing this is to offer a constructive guide on how to communicate, and define, your mentoring voice. First, however, please permit me a brief note on how women’s "mentoring voices" are often perceived as unduly shrill.

Female faculty members face a dilemma in commenting on the work of colleagues and graduate students. If I phrase a criticism too hesitantly — as in "I’m not sure if you meant this, but …" — people often interpret that as a sign that I don’t understand their point or the topic itself, even when I’m an expert on the field in question. I’ve had male students and colleagues respond by offering to explain the subject or restate their view.

That has happened to me enough times in the past 20 years that I tend to phrase things more directly — sometimes far more directly — than my peers do.

Of course, the unfortunate consequence, and the alternative horn of this dilemma, is that those on the receiving end of my direct comments sometimes seem taken aback by my frankness. A straightforward critical comment — especially from a woman, let alone a junior woman — can seem inappropriate, if not downright offensive, though that all depends on the recipient.

Ultimately it becomes a rather delicate task to put a comment directly enough to convey my meaning yet not so directly as to offend the listener.

Gender comes into the equation in another way as well. When I was in graduate school, I saw it as a tremendous honor to be treated like a peer by my professors. I went into academe, in part, because I wanted to join an intellectual community. I hoped to be treated as an equal, and I found it rather grating when senior professors belabored an obvious point, or treated me as too delicate to receive or respond to criticism of my work.

So as a faculty member now myself, I make an effort not to "talk down" to female students. Whenever possible, I treat them as peers, posing questions or raising objections as I would with anyone else in the profession.

Unfortunately, it turns out, that kind of treatment may not be what every student necessarily wants or needs at each stage of the game. And it’s sometimes difficult to tell when a student is able or willing to "play ball." Part of being an effective mentor is helping your advisee learn how to receive and respond to criticism constructively. Sometimes you do that with soft tosses, and sometimes with a very fast pitch. Eventually the goal is for the student to decide how to swing on her own.

A third and final gender-related factor: Just as many female academics devote a great deal of time to revising and drafting papers before submission — more so than men do — women may be excessively detail-oriented when reviewing others’ work. A 2017 study by Liam Kofi Bright, published in Erkenntnis, an international journal on scientific philosophy, argued that the rate of publication in science among women may be slower because they feel it necessary to anticipate and respond to every possible objection.

Not coincidentally, in evaluating the work of graduate students or colleagues, female academics may spend a great deal of time hunting down references, providing detailed suggestions for exposition, offering counterarguments, etc. because that is exactly what we do in our own work. A male faculty member, in contrast, might feel perfectly within his due diligence merely by sending a student four or five notes on a dissertation, just as he may feel relatively confident in revising his own papers only once or twice before sending them off to a journal.

Those tendencies, taken separately or together, help explain why critical comments from women can be perceived as unduly harsh and excessively detailed — in short, as not very "nice."

In my remarks to the two doctoral students, I’m perfectly willing to grant that I may have thrown too many hard balls at students who were not prepared to hit them. I am a tough critic of my own and others’ work. However, I try very hard to be not just direct but also sincere and kind in my remarks on other people’s work. I strive to give a balanced critique, with both praise and criticism, where warranted.

How do you know what the right balance of feedback should be in a complex context? What does it mean, exactly, to "play nice"? Is there only one way to mentor students? Should "mentoring voice" be the same for everyone — regardless of the gender or status of the student and/or the faculty member?

In my view, the answer to those last two questions is a ringing no. In graduate school, we should embrace the fact that each faculty member has a slightly different advising style. In my view, that’s for the best, for at least two reasons:

  • First, not everyone poses questions, or responds to them, in the same way. Diverse ways of framing problems, posing objections, and crafting responses may lead to better solutions to such problems in the long run.
  • Second, the same mix of criticism and positive reinforcement that helps motivate one student may deter another. There may not be a faculty member whose advising style is exactly right for each student, but there are better and worse "fits." Part of choosing an adviser is finding out which style of feedback gets you motivated, or challenges you in the way you need to be challenged.

To be sure, certain things — harassment, degradation, abusive language — are unacceptable in any mentoring relationship. But within the range of what is acceptable, there is plenty of room for diverse approaches.

Perhaps, then, rather than police one another’s mentoring styles, we need to work on being more explicit about what works for each of us as mentors and for our students.

The more transparent an advising relationship is, the more effective it can be. Certainly students can learn about us from experience. But why not lay it all out in advance for them — spelling out in general terms our particular expectations, preferences, and styles of engagement? Graduate students are more likely to flourish if they know what to expect.

Making your mentoring style public and explicit can serve several aims. First, it may transform male-dominated fields for the better and counter stereotypes about female advisers. Second, instead of relying on departmental gossip to choose an adviser, students can look to our own published lists of expectations and find someone with whom they will flourish as a scholar.

To that end, I have drafted my own list of expectations. Here is what I can promise my students:

  • I will promise to treat you as a peer and an equal. I will do my best to offer you the kind of feedback that I would like to receive.
  • I will not talk down to you.
  • I will do my best to frame comments in a way that is not offensive, hurtful, or mean spirited.
  • I will probably put far-more-detailed comments on your work than you need or want. Detailed commentary is, in my view, a sign of respect. If I had nothing to say about your work, that would be worrisome, at best.
  • I will go out of my way to ensure that you know about and cite the work of underrepresented scholars in the field. This may require you to do a bit more reading outside the mainstream than you may have done otherwise.
  • You do not have to follow each and every suggestion I make. Rather, I hope only that you (a) accept criticism and either revise or fine-tune your view accordingly or (b) frame the work so that it’s clear that my particular criticisms or suggestions are not directly relevant to your project or argument.
  • I see the central goal of our field as developing new and forward-thinking views, not just offering critiques of other people’s views. Thus, I hope to see you develop your own view, and my comments are in that spirit, pushing you to new, original insights.
  • My aim in suggesting further reading is only to offer you ways to think about the same issue from different perspectives. You do not need to cite or engage with each and every item I suggest you read.
  • My goal is to see you succeed. Indeed, a student’s success — not necessarily in getting a "prize" job, but in the sense of developing a thoughtful, engaging research program — is my greatest reward.
  • Seeing your ideas develop or deepen is one of the main sources of pleasure I derive from my work. When I learn something new from your efforts, or see you carry forward a dialogue, I am enormously gratified. This is one of the great rewards of this job.

Postscript: I recently met with one of the doctoral students whose adviser so objected to my comments. She was not at all hurt or outraged and, in fact, said she had found my suggestions helpful. While of course the student wouldn’t want to burn any bridges with me, ultimately, I believe I did my best. My advice to female academics: Be upfront about your mentoring style, and offer a critique that you believe will help shape a student into a fine scholar — whether or not a peer thinks you are "playing nicely."

Violet Smith is the pseudonym of an associate professor in the humanities at a research university in the Midwest

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