working women

The Importance of Apprenticeship

women in STEM

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“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry.” – Nobel Laureate and biochemist Tim Hunt at a conference earlier this month.

By now, women in STEM industries have probably heard about Professor Hunt’s resignation from University College London following the outrage over his comments. While there was justifiably outrage public outcry and an outpouring of social media responses (see #distractinglysexy) this article by Sarah Clatterbuck Soper who describes what it’s like for her to be a woman in a lab made the biggest impact on us.  She talks about all the things that make life different and more difficult for women in science labs but we think her most important comment was:

I found myself thinking that Dr. Huang’s counsel [to a female postdoctoral fellow to “put up” with a mentor who looked down her shirt] was regrettably sound. Getting on your mentor’s bad side could ruin your career.

Most successful people know how valuable a mentor can be in our careers.  And in terms of pure numbers, it is far easier to find a male mentor in science — or indeed among management teams in the workplace — than a female mentor.  Many members of the Fairygodboss community talk about the importance of support in the advancement of their careers.  Some call it mentorship and others call it sponsorship.  Apprenticeship is a term that’s not as commonly used, but Soper’s article defines it well:

Twenty-first-century science has a great deal in common with the medieval apprentice system. Young scientists, typically graduate students and postdoctoral fellows like me, join the laboratory of an established principal investigator…Only when this lengthy period of training is complete might a young scientist hope to establish an independent laboratory of her own, but she will always be known as having trained in Dr. So-and-so’s lab.

From personal experience and from the stories women have shared with us, it seems to us that science is not the only place where “medieval” apprentice systems still exist in the world.  One of the most common ways to advance your career is to attach oneself (either purposefully or accidentally) to a rising star, whether that’s a CEO, founder, or other manager.  Countless women talk about the importance of both learning from this individual, and also of being supported, believed-in, and promoted alongside this person.  However, formal acknowledgment of the importance of apprenticeship is a rare occurrence in the corporate world, and apprenticeship is fraught for women with male mentors because of a number of quite natural things ranging from real differences in interests and life experiences, to the perceptions of close male-female relationships in the workplace.  In some ways, we imagine that the science lab may be an easier place for women to successfully find senior male support than the less formalized systems of the corporate world where politics and the need to clothe everything in meritocratic terms obscures the role that apprenticeship plays.  What has your experience been with apprenticeship?  Have you experienced or observed it working between men and women?

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