The feminization of the field brings to the forefront special issues related to women, balance and mentoring. This topic has prompted passionate interest from female students as we struggle to merge our identities as psychologists and women. We wonder if having it all--enjoying a thriving/diversified career, family, holding leadership positions, engaging in community service, lobbying for political change, advocating for disadvantaged populations and participating in hobbies/leisurely activities--is a possibility or an unattainable fantasy, because of difficulties identifying women to emulate who do balance their professional and personal lives.
Are female psychology leaders living balanced lives and are they able/willing to steer the new generation of female psychologists in this direction? Given the history of finite career-advancement opportunities for women in all disciplines, what are the experiences and possibilities for women in psychology? Are women still making great personal sacrifices for their careers? Are we still required to continually prove ourselves under male-dominated review? Does this interfere with the availability of women to mentor students because they must work overtime to further substantiate their professional and intellectual competence? Are women operating from a masculine template in designing and defining their roles as psychologists and mentors? Do misperceptions about women having, using and needing power still circulate even within our own profession? YES!
The realities of gender-based assumptions, stereotyped roles and inequality in opportunity for women in our field are difficult to face. Women in leadership positions, whether in academia, research institutions or organizations, seem to have extraordinary difficulty with balance because of the pressure to perform exceedingly well and the need to work doubly hard to reconfirm professional and intellectual abilities. This results in a lack of high-achieving, leading, female role models who have been able to balance their multiple roles without negative personal or social consequences. Of course, there are some women who serve as exemplary examples. Nevertheless, there are not enough of these women, and those who are involved in thriving mentoring relationships are being stretched thin and their resources are clearly taxed.
Why is this happening?
Women are trying to level the professional playing field. Our successes gain us credibility, more influence and the power to implement changes that yield greater gender equality. Meanwhile, our existing gender-based social structure still imposes one set of rules for women and another for men. These rules inhibit women from revealing their struggles for fear of exposing professional vulnerability.
Some may say, "Prioritize! You will make time for the things that are important to you." Translated by women, this proclamation means, "Sacrifice! You can't do everything and must neglect something." High-achieving women will not accept this call for resignation. Sacrifice creates a sense of defeat, and negligence implies incompetence. Not surprisingly, women are unwilling to be viewed as incapable or unqualified when professional credibility is a hard-won attribute in a culture where professionalism is a well-protected masculine status.
While impediments to women's professional development have become more publicly acknowledged, they have not become obsolete. Women are grappling with the problem of how to succeed in a culture that rewards stereotypical male values while maintaining a sense of femininity. Because we create meaning and constitute our identities in the context of relationships, it is particularly important for us to surround ourselves with other strong women with whom we share a sense of intellectual equality. However, these connections are difficult to establish and maintain because we have competing demands for our time and attention, and uncompromising obligations to our relationships and career. Likewise, some powerful women protect their distinct status by denying that gender boundaries exist, actively avoiding or intentionally preventing competition from other women.
Strategies for change
Students yearn for female mentors who will model balance by engaging in genuine and personal relationships that demonstrate the negotiation of behavior in several roles. Severing opportunities to observe and hear about the personal aspects of professional women's lives deprives students of models for how to have it all and the mechanisms by which personal and professional roles are both integrated and separated. It is not possible or desirable to completely divide the personal and the professional. However, some professional women behave as if compartmentalization is preferred and healthy. When female psychologists risk exposing their multiple selves to students, valuable opportunities to learn about balance are presented. When a female model for balance is not available, we are led to believe that the ideal is indeed a fantasy and that significant sacrifices are the inevitable price women must pay for professionalism.