Mentoring without courageous conversation about context is like sweeping in a sandstorm



Choosing to be mentored or to mentor someone is a difficult decision. Finding someone to mentor you is no easy task. There are many things to factor in to one’s choice, such as whether you want someone who you feel is similar to you and just further along their professional journey or perhaps someone different who is able to demystify the world of work for you in a particular field, and refresh your own outlook with their new perspective. The gender, race, class, professional background, age and seniority of the person who mentors you should be important factors to you in your mentoring relationship. Whoever you choose, I would assert that mentoring needs both parties to actively engage with the political, social, economic and other contextual factors affecting both the mentor and the mentee.

Identity is for life, not just for childhood
The literature looking through the lens of race and gender in relation to mentoring seems to deal exclusively with youth mentees and attempts to close the gap of disadvantage for certain identified groups progressing through the education system, or entering into the world of work. It seems that the issues of class-based, gendered and/or race-related discrimination and systemic bias are identified as factors we can discuss and redress in youth, but discourse around this may be under-developed or even avoided in later years. Another problematic element to the literature and potential message of this focus on youth is that it hints at a need to ‘treat’ the mentee, rather than to examine the structural and systemic sexist, classist and racist mechanisms that call for additional support in the first place.

Sending the elevator back down
One of the key premises of mentoring is around addressing a deficit in social capital – we usually consider this to be a factor especially when a mentor is older and further along in their career and is able to act as an advocate for a younger, less-connected mentee – or indeed a mentee from a different socio-economic or cultural background to one’s own. In actively engaging in a more politically alert and socially committed attitude to the mentoring relationship, it could be an exciting prospect to see the mentor consciously understanding how they occupy a position of power and influence relative to the dominant societal norms around who holds power and privilege. As a mentor, one may have thought, I am lucky to be in this position of privilege and I benevolently give my time to support others who are still on their way. But what if we could go further than this and go about dismantling the notion of luck, hard work, and meritocracy being the guiding factors before we metaphorically ‘send the elevator back down’ for a mentee? Could we openly examine what the subjective barriers and enablers were in the mentor’s and the mentee’s journey to date, and what may lie ahead on the onwards journey? How exciting it could be if each party also wanted to expend time and energy on understanding and dismantling the systems which create this imbalance of social capital in the first place, and within the bastion of their own institutions and circles of influence. Is it enough to send the elevator back down, when we could even act to re-route it?

Doing the work: powerful professional learning and powerful learning for the profession
I’m on a journey reading and thinking about identity. As a straight, able-bodied, cis-gendered woman, and as someone racialised as white, the issue of mentoring has several layers of complexity for me. I believe that it is our responsibility to have courageous conversations and deliberately acknowledge and investigate the influence of race, gender and class to examine what we truly understand about how these influence mentoring experiences. Mentoring in itself doesn’t change much, unless we agree to move the narrative from a personal treatment of symptoms to a bold commitment to curing the systemic and institutional ills which create them. Moving the focus from individual professional learning towards harnessing this for the purpose of powerful learning for our professions, we could, in fact, start with the reasons for the mentoring relationship to begin with, and how each party comes to be in this relationship. This could then progress to a mutual exercise to examine context in more depth – the structures and restrictions each party may or may not face in their professional journey. Arising from this should result a commitment to work to understand these in context, as well as actively participate in work to call out and treat bias, discrimination and systemic discrimination within our own practice and our own organisational structures and practices.


2 thoughts on “Mentoring without courageous conversation about context is like sweeping in a sandstorm

  1. Great post about what we all bring to a mentoring set up – and I totally agree that we should be far more bold in tacking the issues you raise. That said, I do wonder about the balance a mentor must bring to care for and start with where the mentee is – and where they want to get to. This doesn’t negate what you say – but it is really important to listen and empower. I remember raising issues about Gender in a mentoring situation and while the conversation was good, the other person reflected at the end that while that had been fun – it hadn’t given them a starting point to build a more positive change in what they were doing. I’d welcome ideas from you and others about how to make these issues explicit without overwhelming the work of mentoring. Thanks for posting Penny : )

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