Tenured Women Mentor New Women Faculty

Gooey Chocolate Cake

When tenured faculty women mentor non-tenured faculty women at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, newcomers feel connected. Women in male-dominated departments have someone to ask: “Is this normal?” Moms-to-be learn how to navigate parenthood and work.

That’s what Robin Douthitt, now dean of the School of Human Ecology, hoped for when she began the Women Faculty Mentoring Program (WFMP) on her dining room table. At the time, women faculty voluntarily left the UW-Madison at twice the rate of men. Fifty departments had no women or just one.

“The one woman was very lonely and very isolated and often left,” Douthitt said. With incoming Chancellor Donna Shalala’s encouragement, Douthitt in 1989 invited the University’s women faculty to their first-ever University-wide meeting. “It was giddy,” she remembered. “No one had ever seen this many women faculty together in one place.”

The Women’s Faculty Mentoring Program has become part of the provost’s office. Tenured women mentor non-tenured faculty to help them navigate the social, political and practical road to success. WFMP hosts peer groups and organizes campus-wide conversations about everything from time management to stress.

“To be successful, you need mentoring,” said Wendy Crone, the Graduate School’s interim associate dean for Physical Sciences and past WFMP director. While every department assigns mentors for new faculty, Crone said a senior woman from outside the department provides valuable insight.

“Sometimes women find their voices are not being heard or their ideas are being co-opted,” she said. “A woman who’s been there can suggest strategies or say ‘I hear you and I agree with you’ or ‘You’re overreacting.’”

Peer mentoring groups give women who are in the same situation a chance to mentor each other, Crone said. Gooey Chocolate Cake (GCC), UW-Madison’s oldest women’s peer mentoring group, brings women from the physical sciences together on a regular basis.

“It creates a circle of friends and a way to check in with other women on leadership issues,” said Susan Hagness, the Philip Dunham Reed Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering. “Gooey Chocolate Cake – yes, they do eat cake – historically has identified at least one woman candidate to stand for election to the Physical Science’s Divisional Executive Committee every year and a woman has been elected to the 12-member committee every year but one since 1993. Five have chaired it. GCC’s goal is to ensure that the committee includes at least three women faculty each year.”

A gift from Kathy and Bos (BS ’67 EGR) Irvine allowed WFMP to expand peer mentoring groups for faculty women with young children to all divisions and host other activities. “Women, as minority amongst the faculty, can feel the path upward a bit daunting and might just opt out without this support,” Kathy Irvine has said, adding even a small investment makes a big difference.