I have been thinking a lot about mentoring. The term mentor for me evokes the image of learning from an elder. In that image there is no mutuality. One has come to learn, the other has come to teach and pass on wisdom.
In many professional environments mentors are encouraged as part of a formal process that supports staff to meet their professional goals. As a professional requirement it results in a range of formulaic relationships. Mentoring across age, gender and race comes with complications. In my current work environment, it coincides with the idea that Black and brown people need more mentoring. This approach is informed by the paucity of Black and ethnic minority women academics and the institutional and structural racism that perpetuate exclusionary practices. There are studies here. This is not to argue that white women do not experience exclusion. However, their exclusion is often at the intersection of gender and class rather than at the intersection of gender, race and class.
So what does feminist mentorship look like? How do you do this without replicating power hierarchies? I offer eight lessons acquired over the last decade.
- Do not recruit “mentees”: anyone who feels the need to say that they have a deep commitment to mentoring young people or women of colour and goes out to recruit “mentees” wants a badge of honour. You position yourself as a power holder based on specific expertise that you have identified and wish to benevolently dole out. The most powerful and impactful mentorship relationships I have witnessed are between people who identified what they wanted and found people to cultivate those experiences with. If there is something to be learnt from your life and work people will find you.
- Unsolicited peer mentors: We can learn from our peers. However, there is an unproductive power relationship that emerges when you set yourself apart as the peer who will mentor another peer. Let your colleagues ask for support. Support people at their point of need. If you think someone needs support that is not available through their line manager or within the institution, cultivate a relationship of mutuality.
- Listen: when you recruit mentees or offer unsolicited support, it is likely that you are a talker rather than a listener. After all, you proceed from a “here is what I have to offer you” rather than a “what do you need” approach. Listening is a skill that many of us do not have. I have learnt to listen to what is being said and what is not being said. I have learnt to repeat myself often because people choose to hear what they want to hear. I ask questions until I’m certain that the answers are not with the person asking for them. My mentors taught me the art of listening by listening to me. You can only listen well when you de-centre yourself from any process and see it as a space of mutual exchange.
- Structure: the assumption that a formal structure to mentoring will deliver results is flawed. Meetings and structure create rigidity and formality that is often unhelpful for the development of an organic relationship. Meetings become a hierarchical place where one feels they have to bring issues to discuss and demonstrate their progress. Effective mentorship relationships are based on need. The most impactful experiences of mentoring I’ve had are with people I have been able to touch base with at my point of need not on the things they imagined I needed support on.
- Not your manager: A mentor is not your line manager. Your line manager is responsible for holding you accountable to your job deliverables. They should also help you work on the things that prevent you from flourishing at work including reflecting on their role in this process. While your line manager can be a mentor, those two roles do not need to coincide. Your mentor should help you figure out the intangibles of relationships, power and people management that make professional environments difficult to navigate.
- Community: Rather than build a community of mentees, build a community of support. More often than not the people who ask to be mentored or who seek you out regularly for support share the same attributes. The concerns tend to be rooted in the same set of structural dynamics. Ultimately what people need are wider communities of support to provide strategies of survival based on where they are. When you build a community of support you acknowledge that strategies for resistance cannot be formulaic and based on individual tactics. Strategies for survival and thriving also need to be rooted in shared support systems that do not leave people isolated and dislocated. Rather than build a little crew of “mentees” build communities of care.
- Show up: I was in a meeting where a number of us were making an argument about what we needed as early career academics. This argument seemed lost on the older women academics in the room who worked in different environments. An older professor spoke up; “our responses to this issue cannot be based on our experiences. The demands placed on early career academics today are different. Think about what matters for those who don’t have the relative privilege you have”. It was a simple argument that those in the room should have understood when we said it, but her peers only paused to listen when she spoke. She not only listened but also spoke up and with. Mentors should speak up and with those who they argue to be building with. Show up.
- You are not a fixer: Trying to replace medical professionals, line managers, parents and family in a mentorship relationship leads to a mini-god syndrome that is less about the person but more about feeling needed. If your mentorship relationship comes to an end because a good counsellor is found then what was needed was a counsellor not a mentor. Your role was in getting them to identify what they needed.
Happy Women’s Day.