Mentoring is almost always spoken of in very positive terms – we look at it, I would argue, through rose coloured glasses. My title, ‘I don’t want to be mentored back into the straight line’, quoting a recent research participant, captures very succinctly a key difficulty with mentoring, and one that is almost entirely overlooked by mentoring practitioners and mentoring programs. I understood exactly what she meant, from both a research and practice perspective.
Mentoring can inadvertently be used to help mentees to ‘fit in’, where mentors reinforce gendered norms and cultural stereotypes, teaching mentees to succeed the way they succeeded. In doing so they reinforce a particular way of building a career or approaching work life balance issues, for example. In my mentoring research I found senior women taught junior women their own survival strategies, unconsciously assuming that what had worked for them would work for their mentee. Mentoring can easily become an enculturation process that unwittingly maintains the status quo.
Some years ago now I was the invited speaker at a mentoring event in a German university hosted by an eminent female scientist nearing retirement age. She was one of the pioneering women of science, and had firm views about what women needed to do to succeed. She spent a significant portion of her time, as she was thanking me and drawing the event to a close, rebutting what I had said. Immediately following the public event I ran a workshop with junior academic women who had also attended the public lecture. As soon as the eminent scientist left the room, they told me ‘We don’t want to be like her!’. This was a model of academia that they did not wish to adopt, and that in their view, needed to change.
I often see this kind of mentoring in action – I think of the mentors as benevolent colleagues, well intentioned, senior and successful people teaching younger colleagues to succeed the way they have succeeded. Some of these mentors don’t expect to learn anything from their mentees, so it remains a one-way advice giving process. So what is the problem with helping people to fit into the existing organizational culture, existing career paths, ways of leading and doing things? When we use mentoring solely as a way of helping people fit the organization as it currently is, all hope of innovation, capacity building to face the adaptive challenges ahead, and organizational learning are cut short.
Perhaps this is easiest to see when we think of technology. We know younger people are more tech and social media savvy, ‘digital natives’ who know much more than the baby boomers amongst us. If we stop and think about it, we know they represent the future. If we mentor these digital natives, expecting them to toe the line, fit in with existing ways of doing the work, and suggest career strategies that we as the baby boomer mentors used to get ahead, we lose the capacity to innovate and learn from them. Reverse mentoring, where the junior party mentors the senior party is one way to address this issue.
In the mentoring programs I implement, we place a heavy emphasis on two-way relationships where both parties are expected to learn from each other. The focus is on development, assisting mentees to find their own way, with the mentor as a knowledgeable guide, rather than imposing the strategies that worked for them. In addition, asking the mentors collectively to reflect on what they are learning from their mentees becomes a rich source of feedback and information for the senior partners, keeping them in touch with the view from below. It allows mentors to identify and act on systemic issues affecting more junior employees. For example n the university setting, Professors can become more responsive to the experiences of early career academics.
If we think about this from a gender perspective, mentoring programs for women can become a learning mechanism for the organization, where mentors, both male and female can not only assist their female mentee, but can collectively develop greater gender insight, and be supported to act as change agents and advocates for gender equality. Rather than seeing mentoring as a career boost for individual women, a formal mentoring program can play an integral strategic role for organisations serious about building more gender equitable workplaces.
So there is mentoring and mentoring. Check that your mentoring program is designed to move your organisation forward, and is not just a way of maintaining the status quo.