Today a particular event triggered a memory regarding a former graduate student of mine. This student wasn't doing well with his research, but he was such a nice guy that many of us worked hard to keep him going for as long as possible. That was a mistake, as it dragged out an experience that became increasingly stressful for everyone. It's always hard to know when to call it quits with a student, though -- except in extreme cases, I am always optimistic that things will work out and that if we can just find the right level of structure, encouragement, and experience, things will work out. In his case, nothing worked.
He blamed me for his failure. That is rather classic behavior, I suppose, but his explanation for why I was to blame shocked me. He had an M.S. degree from another university, and he told me that one reason he did well there was because his advisor [a single, childless male] would go out for beers with him, and they'd chat about stuff, and this was very helpful to him overall in motivating him to work on his thesis project. But now he had an advisor [me] who was always rushing off to pick up her daughter from child-care and who never hung out with the grad students in the pub in the evenings. Needless to say, once he expressed this sentiment, it was the end of our advisor-advisee relationship. I asked him if he really meant what he'd said (he also wrote it in an email message), he said yes, and I cut my losses, which were considerable in terms of grant $$ and time. He tried to find another advisor. No one would take him, and that was that.
His M.S. was from a small regional university, his former advisor has no research profile whatsoever, and yet he felt that his success there and his lack of success here at this major R1 university must be because I am a mom.
You would think that these guys would self-select out of having a female advisor if they feel that way, yet I've had other male students who couldn't deal with having a woman as an advisor, though not recently. It gets easier now that I'm much older than my graduate students. In my first tenure-track job, I was the same age or younger than some of my grad students. One male student kept saying to me "We're the same age, so why do you think you know so much more than I do?". Maybe it was because he was a first year M.S. student and I had completed grad school, a postdoc, a visiting professorship, and was a professor at a research university? Somehow I had acquired knowledge in that process despite my gender. What a mystery. That guy didn't last long as my student. He told me that he'd be more "comfortable" with an advisor who was "more similar" to him. (stupid and sexist? no no no, I thought that, but did not say that). The weird thing is I didn't force him to be my student. He sought me out as an advisor. I guess he didn't realize how humiliating it would be to have a knowledgeable female advisor.
8 years ago