Get Out of Your Silo — The Impact of Mentorship on Underrepresented Populations
Thank you to Samantha Easter for providing April's Spotlight!
While I was in my MBA, my boss off-handedly mentioned she was cleaning out her closet and offered to give me some of her old clothes if I was interested. I jumped at the opportunity to replace my threadbare office-garb snatched from an Arizona thrift store (which did not translate to the snowy climate of Utah as well as hoped). The bag was filled with winter gear, trendy office-wear, a pair of desperately needed snow boots, and crumpled in the bottom of one of the bags — a receipt from the day before. I realized my boss had purchased clothes to replace my ill-suited wardrobe in the most tactful way possible.
Another boss a few years back spent an extraordinary amount of time teaching me how to give a proper handshake:
- Be firm.
- Pump three times.
- Make sure your hand isn’t sweaty.
- Look at the other person in the eye.
- As a woman, offer my hand first because the rules are ambiguous.
Another mentor taught me that asking how much others make is inappropriate office conversation, but it is super important to ask discreetly.
These were isolated incidents, but each was a precious source of informal mentorship.
One of the lies we tell ourselves, as a nation, is that there are no real class boundaries here — or, at least, none that can’t be overcome by determination and hard work.
People scoff at the idea of a secret handshake or a club that guarantees success. However, those same people likely have had the social capital from a young age to learn small talk, what business-casual means, and have trained themselves not to show anger in the office.
For others, particularly those from under-represented groups, these are learned behaviors. And for learning to start, the issue must first be identified.
This is where mentorship comes in.
Mentorship has many benefits: it provides access to support and insights into particular industries and roles. Whether in a structured program or informally, the goal of mentoring is to help a person in their careers and professional lives. It’s often incredibly effective.
A study found in the Journal of Applied Psychology reported people with mentors are more likely to receive promotions. Mid- and senior-level employees can boost people who may not otherwise have those opportunities and help level the playing field. You can find a tactical example of this in the understanding of career paths. While 54% of men had a career discussion with a mentor or sponsor in the past 24 months, only 39% of women did (source).
Why do men get mentored more? Because leaders, the majority of whom are male and white, don’t typically mentor people who don’t look like them. Recent research from the Center for Talent Innovation reported that nearly three-quarters of executives mentor those whose gender and race match their own — meaning women and minorities don’t benefit like their male colleagues.
Organizations lose out by not gaining the full potential of diverse talent.
Whether these companies intend this to be accurate, some normative approaches to mentorship can lead to deeply inequitable outcomes.
“Even those who believe that diversity improves creativity, problem-solving, and decision making naturally invest in and advocate for the development of the subordinates who are most like them,” writes Richard Farnell in the Harvard Business Review. “They see less-experienced versions of themselves in these folks, and so they’re inclined to believe in their potential — they want to nurture it.”
This also means growth and advancement opportunities go disproportionately to those who belong to the same demographic or social group.
It doesn’t matter how much lip-service an organization gives to the benefits of diversity or how much (typically useless) diversity training we force leaders to sit through. A leader or an organization must demonstrate a commitment to changing the status quo by deliberately mentoring people who aren’t like themselves.
And this crossing over social and demographic lines isn’t just valuable for the mentee; it’s beneficial for the leader. By teaching and learning from others who aren’t like yourself, you increase your emotional and cultural intelligence. You increase your ability to spot opportunities and potential, and you gain perspective.
Businesses are increasingly waking up to the reality that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives aren’t just a good PR move; its good for business.
Few interventions support DEI and the dismantling of systemic inequalities as well as mentorship, and there are many ways to rethink one’s approach to making sure it is inclusive and equitable.
When done well, mentoring can satisfy these needs while allowing an organization to demonstrate DEI and encourage access, belonging, and allyship. With accountability and structure, mentoring can be a powerful tool for your DEI strategy today and in the future.
Tips for Mentee
Finding a mentor is not easy, and it can be scary to put yourself out there and ask.
- Identify why you want a mentor. What goals are you hoping to achieve?
- Identify who would be a good fit. Find someone who has achieved similar goals and who seems to show personality traits in common.
- Don’t be afraid to be bold. People are often flattered to be asked for advice or mentorship. Even when it feels risky, the worst that will happen is rejection.
- Ask for a connection. People are more likely to respond if they are being introduced by someone else. Think about your supervisor, social network, and even your Linkedin connections, and then ask them to introduce you for a 15-minute conversation.
- Don’t go in asking for a formal mentorship; start with a 15-minute conversation. This is enough time to ask a few questions, get a sense of whether it’s a good fit, and doesn’t take too much time.
Tips for the Mentor
· If you are a mentor or want to become one, consider your personal biases. Work to understand where you are coming from and how to work against your defaults actively. It’s natural to want to support your alma mater, the neighborhood kid, the son of your bishop, or your best friend’s daughter. However, these seemingly innocent decisions may filter out candidates who could not access such an education, which may correlate to socioeconomic status, race, immigration status, and more. Instead, consider reaching out to someone far more junior in your organization or working with an organization that connects people from disparate backgrounds.
· Don’t be afraid to state the potentially obvious or even bring up uncomfortable topics. As much as we are loathed to admit it, business culture often operates on a rigid set of social norms and behaviors that may be invisible or foreign to someone inexperienced. Take the personal example shared above — as awkward as my boss may have found it to tell me that my blazer with the ripped lining wasn’t up to standard, it saved me much embarrassment and helped me win at later interviews.
· Work to listen as much as you talk. While your role is to provide learning opportunities and open doors, understand where your mentee is coming from. This will build your efficacy as a mentor by better relating to their perspective and increasing your skills.
Tips for the Organization
- Ensure there are clear objectives and actionable goals that can be measured.
- Understand the groups you’re supporting and be sensitive to their needs. Include members of the employee groups you’re trying to serve in the design of the program. Follow up with regular roundtables to ensure the program is valuable and gauge if there are ways to improve.
- Make your mentorship program optional to join. Mentors and mentees should be excited and want to be active participants.
- Match the right mentors with the suitable mentees. Make sure to understand the preference and intent of your matching process.