Dear Feminist Scientists (and Science-y Feminists): Do you need a feminist supervisor to do graduate work in feminist science?


This is another installment of “Dear Feminist Scientists (and Science-y Feminists).” Yes, we are still working on a less clunky name, but this one is growing on us. Anyway, a graduate student recently wrote to ask us (and you!):

Do you need a feminist supervisor to do graduate work in feminist science?

It’s a good question. Do you? Did you? Is it only a yes/no question? Is a feminist-who-is-a-scientist enough? Or are we talking someone who identifies their science as feminist? What would you tell past-you? Or feminist-scientist-to-be?


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5 Responses

  1. Janine Farrell says:

    Hello – this is a good question – and an important articulation/distinction to ask, is it ‘enough’ or preferred, perhaps, to have a mentor or supervisor who is a feminist in science? Or must the science itself be explicitly and thoughtfully demonstrable as feminist.

    I am just finishing my masters degree in health sciences (public health). I had a supervisor who was a scientist that practiced explicitly in a way that worked against sexist, racialized, colonial conceptions of science and scientific practice.

    I had mentors, who were feminists and interfaced with the sciences also.

    My answer, from experiencing both of these kinds of mentors (because that, I imagine, is what you are most concerned with – the kind of teaching and mentorship you receive) is that if you plan on doing science, you need a mentor to teach you how to do science differently – to guide you in alternative thinking and methods that will help you get there. My feminist teachers are good at conceptualizing alternative methods and methodologies, but when it comes to actually doing it – it’s tough because we don’t have a lot of examples to draw from. If you want to do feminist science, I would say you need a close mentor and teacher to guide you. Do they have to be your supervisor? Not necessarily, but that sure would be nice!

    On the other hand – reflecting on my assumption that what you care about it receiving mentorship and teaching, I also must acknowledge that you may NEED a supervisor who will LET you do your work in a critical feminist way. It is likely that if you are within a discipline that espouses particular values about what ‘good’ or ‘legitimate’ science is, it may only be your supervisor who can back you up when you present a project or thesis that diverges from these values. Do they need to practice feminist science? Or do they just need to get that your science is valid and utilize their power to back you up?

    These are the values of a supervisor you need to have if you are going to practice differently, and in ways that challenge the mainstream. Chances are that you will find the teachings and mentorship for theory and application in various places. But you need your supervisor to be on board (amidst challenging you), to act in solidarity you and protect a space for you to put your feminist ideas and imagination into practice when outside forces and backlash come around.



  2. Sara McClelland says:

    I keep trying to think of a good answer to this really good question and can’t seem to come up with one. So here’s one possible way of thinking about the question:

    One part of me says “yes” — having a feminist mentor is key in terms of feeling embedded in and connected to a larger community of feminist work in the field/area/discipline. And because being a grad student is hard enough without having to do it alone.

    Another part says “no” and that a student can forge these relationships on their own and may perhaps thrive in environments where this is part of their process. I guess the issue becomes one of effort and support — and the fact that these may be offered from places that are not explicitly feminist, but may be nevertheless supportive.

    My advice to a student would be to take stock of how they work and how they excel in other environments to help guide this very important decision about graduate training.

  3. Stacey Ritz says:

    Hm, this is a poser. I had a non-feminist PhD advisor, and nothing that I did during my PhD research itself could really be called “feminist science”, but I did have other mentors who kept me connected to feminist science during those years. And I did do some work ‘on the side’ in feminist studies of science while I was a grad student, kind of undercover-like. I think it’s probably possible to do feminist research without a feminist supervisor, as long as said supervisor was not actively anti-feminist, and you had access to some other mentor or context that would foster your feminist thinking.

    I think of the Collaborative Program in Women’s Health at the University of Toronto (run by Gillian Einstein)….students in any program in health at U of T can apply to the program and they’re matched with a mentor, and have opportunities to participate in seminars and workshops and take courses, to foster their expertise in women’s health, even if their primary research supervisors do not have this expertise. Here’s their website:

    I like this model a lot, and sometimes I wonder if it might be useful to create a non-institutionally specific form of it for feminist science more generally (not just focussed on women’s health or women, but feminism)….hey, maybe this website could do that? 🙂

  4. Gap Junction Staff says:

    From a colleague, Sofia Jawed-Wessel (with permission):

    I don’t think a feminist supervisor is a must but I would LOVE to have one. I check in often with other scientists in my area when I do my work. Sometimes they have time to give me feedback, sometimes they don’t.

    I especially love feedback from my feminist scientists as they tend to be more thoughtful and catch things others do not (feminist related or not).

  5. Needstostay Anonymous says:

    I’m currently a grad student at a university that made the news due to the deeply-damaging misogynist behavior displayed by some of its students, staff, and administration alike. The scandal concluded when my university went above the law and let students with a propensity for rapist behaviors to enter the professional field. My advisor – who was not involved in this scandal – is not explicitly anti-feminist but enforces the same kind of culture at this university that allowed rapists to graduate. Every action and word my supervisor makes squelches all any any feminist notions of science, and ensures that you have no voice unless you are a cis-gendered white male. It was only later on I linked his behavior to the potential for danger. I wish I had taken this as a red flag before I began my program, because he later physically endangered me and my university once again used its power to sweep it under the rug. This has shut me down as a scientist altogether because I have become non-functional due to the distress. As someone who wants to dedicate their life to the pursuit of scientific knowledge, this is breaking my soul.

    I encourage everyone here to use anti-feminist principals/behaviors in any workplace as an indicator for the potential of experiencing physical/emotional/sexual abuse to yourself in that workplace. Keep in mind that universities (like many other institutions) are notorious for cover ups and going above the law to protect its prized male members as well as the people who will defend them. Sadly, university can sometimes be a corrupted old-boys-network, but with the added bonus of creating an environment perfect for getting away with sexual harassment and assault.

    Please watch the documentary “The Hunting Ground” as it will give you a notion how common rape is at most universities. The need for feminism in science is actually the need for creating a safe place where women and minorities can do science without carrying despair in their hearts.

    I’m currently searching for a Masters program to transfer to, or a PhD program to apply to where feminist science is allowed to flourish. For myself, I need my environment not to endanger me physically. For me, that means having feminist-friendly people around me who will believe me and help me protect myself from harm.

    …if anyone can suggest Masters/PhD programs or departments in the biological sciences that match this description, please pass that information along! I don’t care what country the program is in!!!!!

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