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November 20, 2008

Crafting a New Style of Mentorship

Catherine New
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This is part of a series of posts exploring issues of careers and women that were discussed at the “Universities, Careers and Women” symposium on September 19.

There are blogs and books and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence, but finding the right calculus for work and life is no easy task. For many, this is where the role of a mentor comes in handy. Especially for women who seek to have a family and a career, finding a mentor can be critical to establishing a realistic template for what’s to come.

This topic was part of the discussion of September’s “Universities, Careers and Women” research symposium. Panelist Subha Barry, managing director and head of multicultural careers at Merrill Lynch, talked about some of the reasons behind the dearth of female mentorship.

“There is an ignorance, and [senior women] don’t know how they could help to guide them differently,” said Barry. “There is a pathway they created for themselves as the way to success, and they are unsure whether they can affirm that there is an alternative path, so they feel you need to march in lockstep with what they did to be successful.”

Mentoring is critical for many reasons: it provides a transfer of human and intellectual capital, it creates a web of accountability and loyalty, and it provides comfort and guidance in the face of challenges. Mentoring is also about the bottom line. Without it, there are some very real retention issues.

Economist Anne Preston of Haverford College, who spoke at the symposium, discussed her study that showed that the number one reason women leave the science field is a lack of mentorship.

Earlier this year, Professor Jonah Rockoff blogged about his research showing that teachers were more likely to return the following year if they were assigned a mentor that used to work in their school.

So if mentoring works, but there’s a lack of it for professional women, what can be done?

Cali Williams Yost ’95, author of Work+Life, has spent more than a decade researching and writing about the intersection of career and personal life issues.

In a recent interview, Yost discussed how both roles — mentor and mentee — can be improved. The increasing emphasis on global business and the 24/7 culture of the workplace has changed what it means to have separate professional and private lives, Yost said. Like Barry, she pointed to some generational issues that hinder the mentoring process. In a prior generation, “when [professional women] were raising children, you worked or you didn’t,” said Yost. “Now you have a younger generation who says, ‘I am not going to do that. I want to find a new way and its not going to look the way you did it.’ And leaders struggle to have that conversation. They did it the way they did it for some reason, but now it’s different and you have to engage in a dialogue and move out of the ‘all or nothing’ mindset.”

Yost says the emphasis in mentorship should be less about handing down practices and more about sparking a discussion of how to support realistic life demands.

“[Mentorship] is not giving younger women ideas but rather supporting the conversation and working with them to find a creative way to do it and knowing you yourself may also experience elder care or work in retirement,” said Yost.

“For younger women, when you experience a work-life transition, you need to say something. You need to initiate and come to the table having thought of a plan that considers what you need to do as well as the needs of your business.”

Photo credit: Leslye Smith