COE Faculty Spotlight

Q&A with Dr. Leigh Harrell-Williams

Leigh Harrell-WilliamsIn 2019, Dr. Leigh Harrell-Williams (associate professor of Educational Psychology and Research in CEPR) partnered with Dr. Leah Windsor (research assistant professor, Institute for Intelligent Systems, and associate professor in English) to expand a mentorship group originally focused on quantitative researchers to include all women+, female-identifying and non-binary individuals across campus. The Women+’s Mentorship Network invites faculty, staff and students to grow together through book clubs, weekly writing time and monthly talks. The network is currently funded by a Communities of Research Scholars (CoRS) grant sponsored by the UofM. Dr. Harrell-Williams, who was recently named Dean’s Faculty Fellow in the College of Education, met with us to tell us more about the Women+’s Mentorship Network.


What is the mission of the Women+’s Mentorship Network?

The broad goals of the Memphis Women+’s Mentorship Network are to promote gender parity in the academic environment among students, faculty and staff. We are building a mentoring community among women+ at The University of Memphis to share knowledge and best practices about retaining and promoting women+ at all levels in academia. Through this network we will workshop research ideas, connect mentors and mentees, and foster mentorship across rank attainment and disciplines. The CORS grant is supporting our efforts to increase outreach, awareness and participation within the University.

Who is involved in the Women+’s Mentorship Network?

Currently, mostly faculty and graduate students are involved with a few staff members and a few administrators. We would love to have a bigger staff contingent, because staff need to network and have mentorship as well. We would also like to have more undergraduates participate. Women aren’t necessarily taught to advocate for ourselves, and mentorship would benefit undergrads as well as grad students. Whether you’re selling yourself on a cover letter or a graduate school application or for a faculty position, it’s still selling yourself.

We want to mentor our target population of women+, but it would be great if we could foster conversations with the men who mentor – men who are deans or department chairs, men who sit on tenure and promotion committees and hiring committees, men who write letters of recommendations and men with women+ in their classes.

What do you hope this group is able to accomplish?

We want to support success on campus, knowing that success may look different for each person. We would love to foster connections in pairs of people based on similar interests and goals. For example, a faculty member may be interested in moving into administration and needs to meet with someone who is currently working in administration. We want to help people network, talk with each other and develop relationships.

Why is it so important for women+ to focus on mentorship?

Research has shown that women are at a strategic disadvantage when it comes to securing high quality letters of recommendation for internships, tenure track jobs and tenure and promotion because letter-writers tend to focus on women’s social qualities while they focus on measurable, tangible skill sets for men. Women are more likely to “care for the academic family” in their service assignments rather than taking high profile positions that raise their national and international recognition, which can limit them in their pursuit of becoming Full Professors. On a personal note, women also tend to carry the burden of care, whether that’s childcare or caring for elderly parents or caring for a person with a disability.  Additionally, we aren’t coached on selling ourselves; we aren’t coached on negotiating for better deals, whether it comes to your first job or next job. It’s even nebulous how certain university policies, like parental leave, can be used; there’s inequity on what different people get in terms of leave.

What kind of events do you host?

We have a book club where we meet each week to discuss a monthly book (The PhD Parenthood Trap; Burnout; Dare to Lead). The CoRS grant funded the purchase of books for February and March. We also have a dedicated one-hour weekly writing time on Zoom. Women+ across campus can just show up, turn off their camera and mic, and spend an hour writing. We do that every week. You just show up and do what you need to do but we’re there to help you be accountable.

We also have monthly one-hour talks about professional development. We’re focusing on goal setting, work/life boundaries, faculty becoming campus leaders and student success.

How did the global pandemic affect the Women+’s Mentorship Network plans?

We started planning a one-day conference for Spring 2020, but then the whole world shut down. There were things we wanted to do that we couldn’t do because of the pandemic, like pair people up across campus. We’ve had to rethink networking because everything we’ve had to do has been virtual. But, our virtual book clubs and meetings are going really well. People are really used to Zoom.

If someone is interested in being mentored or finding a mentor, how should they get started?

We have a listserv that you can sign up to join by emailing myself or Leah Windsor. You can come to our events and get involved. We can help you make connections.

Sometimes informally, you can find the opportunity in unsuspecting places.  For example, look at This Week and the Research and Innovation Newsletter. If you find someone who was awarded the type of grant you want or hosting the type of event that you’d like to host, reach out to them.

What do you need to grow the Women+’s Mentorship Network?

Currently, we have a board of advisors that will help us network to other places and other colleges and universities. However, day-to-day operations are handled by myself, Dr. Leah Windsor, Carrie Hanson (a GA funded by the CoRS grant) and Dr. Crystal White, clinical assistant professor in CEPR. Crystal is a recent graduate, so she is able to connect us with student organizations. We are interested in getting more people involved in helping us with event planning, so suggestions for events or people who would like to help plan events are welcome. We can’t grow what we do with just this small group; we need more people to help with the balancing act of running this organization and doing the jobs we were hired to do.

We have been partnering with other similar groups on campus like the NSF-funded ASPIRED team, led by PI Dr. Esra Ozdenerol, which aims to increase gender equity in recruitment, hiring, retention and advancement in STEM at the UofM.

What do you hope to accomplish in the future?

We would like to share our resources about best practices with other local colleges and universities. We are currently working on a website with information about mentoring and mentorship opportunities around campus. We would also love to host an in-person conference like we were planning before the pandemic.

More broadly, we would love to see an Office of Mentorship on campus. There’s a couple of groups on campus focused on mentorship, but we would like to have the resources in one place.

What makes you so excited about leading this group?

I love what we are doing and who I get to interact with. I wish I could get paid to do more with this group. When you’re doing the book club and you have people identifying with it, saying it is exactly what they need for themselves or, like in my case, to support my doc students and my colleagues, that’s a huge thing. I like that we had this idea and got funding for it. We think it’s been a success. I’m excited about the next few months.

How does someone get involved?

Please email Leigh Harrell-Williams (leigh.williams@memphis.edu) or Leah Windsor (leah.windsor@memphis.edu) to join the Listserv and learn about future events. We also welcome any ideas for future events, especially those targeted for women+ staff.