It’s Not Called “MEN-toring” for Nothing


naspa diamond

Author
Alyssa Stefanese

Published
September 15, 2017


Growing up, I was privileged enough to be taught I could do anything a man could do. I was told I could be a lawyer, a teacher, anything my heart desired. Well, they never mentioned being a student affairs professional, but I think it was implied! I even remember my father buying me a book entitled So, You Want to Be President, which taught children about the presidential office, the White House, and a little about how to get there. He was convinced his daughter could be President of the United States. It didn't seem to ever cross his mind that women have historically not been given the same opportunities.

Looking back, it is evident to me that my parents were my first mentors, as they did what any good mentors do. They gave me access to their personal and professional networks (co-workers, friends, relatives), their fair share of valuable advice (like to always bring shower shoes to public pools and college restrooms) and their knowledge (like teaching me how to tie my shoes, how to multiply, how to spell, etc.). I should also mention that Helen Reddy’s I am Woman Hear Me Roar was often played in my house. But the outside world, the society I developed within, was not (and still isn’t) conducive to or supportive of women’s success in the workforce. I soon learned from my own experience that women can be, and very often are, hindered in their educational and professional pursuits, including a lack of mentors and segregated mentorship relationships.

Unfortunately, I, like many women, have faced subtle sexism outside of my home for as long as I can remember. When I was in elementary school, I was told that girls should be less active than I was, less vocal, less opinionated, and that I should instead be content with being cute, soft-spoken, and allow the boys to be leaders. The moment I realized that finding mentorship as a young woman would be a challenge came later in life. I was 14 years old and vying to represent my school in an academic Olympiad competition. I had the grades and test scores to do so and I couldn’t wait to be invited on to the team and receive mentorship from a teacher in my favorite subject to prepare me for the competition and to, hopefully, major in that area in college. I waited and waited, but no communication came. When I spoke with my teacher to ask if I had reached the grade I needed, he told me that I was qualified and that I tied first in my class with a fellow classmate of mine, who was a young man, but that the male student was selected over me because the school thought, and I quote, “Men are more naturally competitive, and more likely to win.” My teacher, who I looked up to, was telling me that men were more worthy of his and the school’s time and investment.

I was crushed, defeated, and confused. From my perspective, I worked just as hard, I studied just as much, and I had achieved the same grades; but, because I was a woman, I was relegated to the sidelines and my accomplishments were diminished. From that experience on I continued to notice the trials women face in finding and sustaining mentorship relationships that fit their interests, desired career paths, and personalities. 

Challenges Women Face in Finding & Sustaining Mentorship

Fast forward a couple of years (and a couple of degrees), I know I am not alone in struggling to find mentorship as a woman. Here are some of the main challenges I believe women encounter finding quality mentors and maintaining those relationships.

  1. "Women Can Only Learn from Other Women" Mentality: It is often assumed that women can only be served properly or fully by other women. This strict gender based pairing can further exacerbate women’s inability to be exposed to, progress towards, and succeed within male dominated fields.
  2. There are Less Women At the Top: Due to societal factors, such as the glass ceiling, there are numerically less women in top-ranking, leadership positions (Shin & Bang, 2013). There are also less women graduating from master’s level and professional degree programs than men regardless of their majority status at the undergraduate level, which limits the number of women available to fulfill the number of mentors sought out and needed by young adults (ACE American Council on Education, 2016). It is not mathematically possible to match every college-going woman with a successful, professional female counterpart because there are less women available to draw from.
  3. "Queen Bees" Avoid "Worker Bees": There exists an idea that some women have the “Queen Bee Syndrome,” which involves successful women in the workplace disassociating with other women and treating women supervisees, employees, and students more harshly than they would men in the same positions in an attempt to avoid the impact of systemic sexism (Cooper, 2016). “Queen Bee” behaviors adds another barrier to the number of women available to mentor other women.
  4. There Just Isn't Enough Time in the Day: Women are also at a disadvantage in cultivating and maintaining their mentorship relationships because of the unequal division of household responsibilities that fall on them as a result of their biological sex, (like pregnancy), and imposed societal gender roles, (like childrearing and home-making). This can significantly reduce the ability to dedicate time to furthering professional careers by fostering well-established mentoring relationships and offering their services to mentor others.

It's Not All Bad

Despite my difficulty in finding mentors in my K-12 school experience, I was lucky enough to find mentors outside of school and in my postsecondary education that walked with me on this path to higher education and student affairs. These mentors are those individuals that I either sought out and connected with organically, or those that for some reason, unbeknownst to me, took an interest in me as a person, a student, and a professional.  

But, what made these mentors so profound to me? Certainly not their genders. Now, I must admit some of the mentors I have had throughout my life are brilliant, successful, women, and that does lend itself to my benefit on occasion. For example, my mentor in college was able to teach me about being a woman in academia and the challenges that women can face earning both their doctoral degrees and tenure all while trying to instill some semblance of work-life balance. My mentor in graduate school had no problem calling out male classmates who “man-splained” to their female compatriots. As a mentee, I did not seek out women indiscriminately to mentor me simply because I identify as a woman. I sought out those who could inspire me, those that took an interest in me, and those who cared for their work and for others.

Can you think of that one person who changed your life in a positive way? Who put you on your career path, or served as a sounding board for your college soul-searching and graduate school existential crises? Think of that person and how your life would be different without them, because those are the types of mentors I was lucky enough to have. Mentors I aspire to be like, and that students remember.

In my attempt to emulate those mentors who made an impact on my professional and personal trajectory, I often find myself in mentoring roles with current undergraduate students, which comes with its own unique challenges as a woman.

Challenges Women Face in Serving as Mentors

  1. Women Are Expected to Be Nurturing at All Times:Female mentors are often assumed and expected to behave in stereotypically “feminine” ways. Both men and women mentees of mine have expected me to be a solely nurturing, mother-like figure who is empathetic and energetic. But, when I stepped outside of those traditionally feminine roles and behaviors to challenge and question mentees in an attempt to build critical thinking skills and empower them to advocate for themselves, some responded negatively. I was called harsh and demanding, which broke my heart. But, I had to keep trying and adjusting my approach to fit the students’ needs, and I am still learning.
  2. We Should “Do the Work” for Our Mentees: Mentees can also tend to depend on women mentors to “do the work” for them; for instance, a young student of mine met with me to discuss applying to graduate school. I talked with them about their interest, their desired location, and gave them some guidance on finding funding opportunities. The next day, they came back to my office to ask if I had generated a list of schools for them to apply to rather than taking the guidance given and translating that to take the initiative to research and to engage in their own self-discovery. This occurrence is just one example, but when talking with male colleagues of mine, they expressed these types of occurrences happening far less with their mentees than it was occurring with me..
  3. Women Mentors “Baby” their Mentees: Perhaps even more puzzling to me, women mentors can be accused of “babying” students when expressing concern and checking in on mentees’ mental state and physical well-being. We as student affairs and higher education professionals know it is particularly important to check in on these aspects in today’s racially charged and potentially triggering social context. I posit that this “babying” perspective is a direct result of society’s construction of gender and femininity. Students perceive women mentors as coddling them because they view women as nurturers, which leads to a sort of “self-fulfilling prophecy.” Society sees women as caregivers, so they perceive the majority of womanly behavior in that light.

So, What Can We Do?

The challenges women face in accessing and maintaining mentorship is cyclical and potentially detrimental to women’s advancement in the workforce, which leads me to question what can we do?!

  1. Educate & Empower: As an educator, my mind immediately goes to teaching our students, specifically women, on the purposes and benefits of mentorship to highlight the ways in which they can leverage their mentor’s network, experiences, and knowledge to positively impact their own future.
  2. Manage Expectations: This sharing of knowledge can also include managing expectations by sharing with students the different mentorship theories and approaches they may encounter in current and future mentorship relationships. This can help eliminate some of the surprise if their mentors take a more “hands off” approach. Not only will this better prepare mentees for mentorship but also it will cultivate mentees’ own capabilities to be effective mentors to others in the future.
  3. Never be “Too Old” to Learn:  As we are taking the time to teach our students, we should also give ourselves the gift of time to continue our own professional development. For example, taking a workshop on mentoring students of minority groups, staying current with journal articles and books focused on mentoring in their field, and learning more about various mentoring strategies, such as critical mentoring (which is an approach I highly recommend).
  4. Change the Culture: Yes, this is a really tall order! One way I believe we can start on that long journey is to develop more mentorship programs that include and engage women at the undergraduate level.  Often times we, as a society, focus on getting students into college and we rely on mentorship programs in high schools and communities to carry the brunt of that burden. But we then let these students go to college and think that society’s work is largely done. Without mentorship in college, women may continue to leak out of the educational and professional pipeline.

Mentorship is critical to improving women’s standings in the professional world. I know that the investment of time and effort that mentors continually provide is so worth it for the small victories when a student achieves their goal or writes a short thank you note.  I hope that others will recognize this effort as an is an investment in our students, in womanhood, and in future gender equity!

References

ACE American Council on Education. (2016). Pipelines, pathways, and institutional leadership: An update on the status of women in higher education. Washington, DC: ACE.

Cooper, M. (2016, June 23). Why women (sometimes) don’t help other women. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/06/queenbee/488144/

Shin, H. Y. & Bang, S. C. (2013). What are the top factors that prohibit women from advancing into leadership positions at the same rate as men? Cornell University ILR Collection. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.

Alyssa Stefanese is the Admissions Staff Member for International Student and Scholar Services at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Geneseo.


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