Eszter Hargittai caused a little bit of a stir on Crooked Timber when she discussed the emotional division of labor between male and female professors. She writes, for example,
Although I don’t know of any systematic studies of what types of topics students bring up during interactions with professors by gender, I have heard plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting that female profs get approached much more by students wanting to talk about life issues than male profs.
What set off Hargittai, and what further irritated her commentators was the way in which teacher/student interactions that we might call “mentoring” were reinterpreted as “mothering,” in either a positive or negative light (like this “gag” gift to a female colleague of Hargittai’s, which was supposed to seem playful, I think, but which ended up seeming simply odd)
On this question of mentoring-as-mothering, and whether it really is as deprofessionalizing as she claims, I think the anecdotes cut both ways, but I do think that a similar dynamic affects male teachers if they get perceived as “paternal” or “avuncular.” And I don’t know if individuals have that much choice about how they might project authority to their students: if you really are a mother or a father, for example, are you not supposed to discuss this aspect of your life with your students and advisees? Likewise, the age difference, or lack of age difference, between teacher and student has a huge impact on how one is received, but there isn’t much one can do about this besides dress “appropriately” for the occasion, however that gets defined.
But much of this debate seems to stem from our own discomfort with the emotional dimension of teaching and advising, and our unease with this unmanageable part of the jobs.