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Women as Mentors
MYTHS AND COMMANDMENTS
Bernice R. Sandler
Mentoring has been presented in recent years as vital for female students and
professionals who are eager to succeed. The common wisdom holds that men frequently
achieve more, professionally, because experienced faculty members have been willing to
show them the ropes and to help pave their way to top jobs. But several myths about
mentoring need to be examined.
Myth: The best way to succeed is to have a mentor. This myth is partly based on flawed
research. Typically, the researcher asks people defined as successful if they had mentors.
Other factors that also might have played a role in their success are not examined.
Mentoring can be important, but it is not necessarily essential. Probably 25% of
professionals, or fewer, have had the strong, intense relationships that we traditionally
call mentoring. It is hard to know how many people actually have had mentors because
supportive relationships with friends, colleagues, or bosses may be described as
"personal" relationships rather than as mentoring, especially when women assist women.
Mentoring relationships are generally exclusive, so that all of one's eggs are in one
basket. The more intense the relationship, the more potential for disruption and damage if
it ever becomes necessary to break out of it. The mentoring process takes time, energy,
and emotional commitment on both sides, which may also mean more isolation for the
person being mentored, even though relationships with others might be equally valuable.
Relying primarily on a mentor for emotional support, as well as for information,
evaluation, coaching, and introductions means that the mentor has to be superior on all
fronts--a hard task for any human being. Relationships in social networks, however, often
involve reciprocal exchanges of information and support from a number of quarters as
they need assistance. In one study of managers (J.P. Kotter. The General Managers, The
Free Press, 1982), the people judged most effective on the job were the people with the
largest social networks.
In a mentoring relationship, the mentor, not the protegee, typically sets the agenda. It is
the mentor who decides what that relationship will be like. In social networks, by
contrast, people have more say in determining what kind of help they need and how to
Myth: The mentor should be older than the person being mentored. This myth assumes
that the relationship is determined in large part by a difference in ages of participants,
rather than by other factors such as experience and interpersonal skills. A person doesn’t
have to be middle-aged or older to be a good mentor to someone else. Also, older people,
whether they are returning students or already established in careers, may also need
Myth: A person can have only one mentor at a time. Having multiple mentors and a
variety of social networks expands a person’s ability to develop allies and alliances.
Relying on several people also means that the mentoring functions can be split up. For
example, one person might be good at providing informal advice about the institution;
another might provide better insights and information about jobs in a particular field.
Acknowledging the need to rely on several people can help avoid a futile search for the
“perfect” mentor. Seeking multiple mentors also may make it more likely that women
will have some access to male mentors, because the discomfort that many men feel in
entering into intense mentoring relationships with women may be alleviated if they are
performing only some of the functions.
Myth: Mentoring is all for the benefit of the protegee. Mentoring is a two-way street.
Mentors receive some benefits, too, such as earning a reputation for spotting new talent.
Besides the typical research assistance provided by the protegee, the person being
mentored can provide fresh insights and information about new problems or programs
with which the mentor may be unfamiliar. Mentoring also may be one of the few ways in
which some men feel that it is acceptable to be nurturing.
Myth: If you are seeking a mentor, you have to wait to be asked. Unlike an old-fashioned
dance, women do not have to wait passively for a senior person to notice their
achievements and choose to help them. By actively seeking mentors, women can make
themselves more visible as up-and-comers in a profession.
Myth: When a man mentors a woman, the chances are great that it will develop into a
sexual encounter. It is possible and does it happen? Yes. But the same thing can happen
when men mentor men and women mentor women. Certainly, a woman needs be aware
of any sexual messages given by the mentor. If they can’t be deflected, she must get out
of the relationship as gracefully and as quickly as possible. If help is needed to end the
relationship, someone who is familiar with sexual harassment issues can be helpful. A
more frequent disadvantage for women being mentored by men are the innuendos about
the relationship from people who find it hard to believe that any relationship between a
man and woman is not sexual.
Myth: Men are better mentors for women. This is partially true, to the extent that men are
more likely to be powerful people and thus able to open more doors. But at least one
study has shown that male mentors were more likely to direct their protegees and
therefore to be disappointed if they did not follow advice. The study found, in contrast,
that female mentors were more likely to encourage and affirm their protegees' career
choices; they apparently had less emotional investment in having their protegees follow
in their footsteps. Also, male mentors may be largely work-focused and ignore personal
issues that affect those with whom they are working, while women mentors often shown
interest in both the personal and professional lives of their students.
Myth: The mentor always knows best. Mentors are human like the rest of us and may
make mistakes or deliberately exploit the protegee. A mentor may misperceive the
student's potential and set goals that are too high or too low.
As the protegee grows and develops professional stature, the mentor may find it difficult
to let go or to move to a more collegial relationship, thus increasing the likelihood that
the protegee development will be stifled or that breach will occur.
A mentor may deliberately or inadvertently use the mentoring relationship to get help and
recognition for his or her own projects, at the expense of aiding the protegee's interests.
For example, rather than clarifying options for research, the mentor may try to pressure
the student to work in a particular area that will help enhance the mentor’s standing.
The mentor may give well-intentioned and correct advice on how to get ahead, but at the
expense of the protegee’s own research interests--for example, by dissuading the student
from pursuing research in newer and more controversial areas.
Despite the variety of potential pitfalls in mentoring, some can be mitigated or avoided if
what I call the “Ten Commandments of Mentoring” are followed:
1) Don’t be afraid to be a mentor. Many people, especially women, underestimate the
amount of knowledge that they have about the academic system or their organization, the
contacts they have, and the avenues they can use to help someone else. A person does not
have to be at the absolute top of his or her profession or discipline to be a mentor.
Teaching assistants can mentor other graduate students, graduate students can mentor
undergraduates, undergraduate majors can help those beginning the major.
2) Remember that you don't have to fulfill every possible function of a mentor to be
effective, but let your protegees know where you are willing to help and what kind of
information or support you can give that you believe will be particularly helpful. Be clear
about whether you are willing to advise on personal issues, such as suggestions about
how to balance family and career responsibilities.
3) Clarify expectations about how much time and guidance you are prepared to offer.
4) Let protegees know if they are asking for too much or too little of your time.
5) Be sure to give criticism, as well as praise, when warranted, but present it with specific
suggestions for improvement. Do it in a private and non-threatening context. Giving
criticism in the form of a question can be helpful, as in, "How would your research look
if you examined economic issues…?"
6) Where appropriate, "talk up" your protegee's accomplishments to others in your
department and institution, as well as at conferences and other meetings.
7) Include protegee in informal activities whenever possible -- lunch, discussions
following meetings or lectures, dinners during academic conferences.
8) Teach protegees how to seek other career help whenever possible, such as money to
attend workshops or release time for special projects.
9) Work within your institution to develop formal and informal mentoring programs and
encourage social networks as well. Work to insure that accurate information is provided
formally to all interested persons through the use of printed materials and meetings.
10) Be willing to provide support for people different from yourself. I have always
believed that it is far easier for women than men to cross boundaries such as race, color,
ethnicity, class and religion in working with others. But we all need to practice this skill
and avoid the temptation to assist only those with whom we feel the most comfortable,
those who are the closest to being clones of ourselves.
* * * * *
SPEECHES & WORKSHOPS
This article originally appeared in the Mar. 10, 1993 issue of The Chronicle of
Higher Education and is reprinted by permission of the author.)
Bernice R. Sandler, Senior Scholar in Residence at the Women's Research and Education
Institute, consults extensively with institutions and others about women's equity,
including sexual harassment, discrimination, and the chilly climate. She has given over
2000 presentations, written many articles, and serves as an expert witness in
discrimination cases. Sandler can be contacted at:
Bernice R. Sandler
Senior Scholar, Women's Research and Education Institute
1350 Connecticut Avenue, Suite 850, Washington, DC 20036
Phone: 202 833 3331 Fax: 202 785 5605