mentoring

I’m involved in a feminist community which is very connected to the media industry (facilitated by the excellent Women, Action, and the Media conference), in which mentoring has been a big topic lately – to some extent for the whole group, and more specifically for me. The first line of discussion has been a critique of the old boys’ network, which is still thriving in media. The second has been along the lines of the book I just picked up from the library, Women Don’t Ask*, which suggests that gender entitlement leads men to seek out and expect resources and remuneration, while lack of entitlement leaves women waiting for these resources instead of asking for them. The third has been strategizing toward creating what some have called an Old Girls’ Network.

I have been involved in the strategizing aspect; as a young person in the process of building my professional self, I keenly feel the need for mentorship and networking opportunities. Recently, I talked to a mentor who brought another layer of analysis; mentoring as the reproduction of power dynamics.

It’s one of those things that’s really obvious once it’s in your field of vision. Mentoring, and the old boys’ network, keeps men in power – that’s where we started. So doesn’t it stand to reason that this same tool will also reproduce other power dynamics? If mentors are surrogate parents in the professional realm, then why wouldn’t professional reproduction mimic some of the inequalities of familial reproduction?

My personal example: at last year’s WAM conference, I met someone a generation older than me who has become, in the intervening year, a mentor with a rich, available-to-me bank of resources. Her demographic background is similar to mine – white, Jewish, female, middle- or upper middle-class. When I first met her, we chatted about innocuous things – her son’s basketball season, cross-country travel. On some level, I was instantly comfortable with her. I have, after all, been talking to upper-middle-class Jews my parents’ age my whole life. This comfort greased the wheels and made it possible for us to create a friendship, meeting for coffee or checking in via email every month or two.

This story of meeting my mentor is a success story, and I’m proud to say I put myself out there, and followed up even while I was totally intimidated. It also makes me consider what was at play that was not a conscious behavior – namely, the comfort level that arose from our parallel backgrounds and similar cultural touchpoints. Could we have established as much initial rapport across cultural lines? In informal relationships especially, being able to shoot the shit is critical to building up the kind of relationship that can lead to inside job offers, professional mentoring, and facilitated contacts with powerful people. And the more cultural touchpoints you have in common with someone, the greater the probability that you’re going to be able to skillfully shoot that shit. So this success story is a facilitated success story, facilitated partly by of our common whiteness, common Jewishness, and common class background.

My role in strategizing about how to build feminist networks has been, so far, thinking about practical tools for mentees in the process of finding and nurturing mentor relationships (including thinking about the important skills and information that mentees have to bring to the table). So now the next step for me is in thinking about adding a tool (or modifying all the current tools?) to incorporate an awareness of this potential to reproduce injustice, and to work against that tendency.

What would a practical, cultural tool look like that would help people wield the positive power of mentoring to interrupt the cycle of power and oppression?

* An interesting side note; when this book was published by an academic publisher, it had a cover with an abstract design. When it was picked up by a trade publisher, however, it got a cover image of a young, conventionally beautiful white woman, and a more delicate font with thinner lines and flourish-y serifs. Gender stereotyping as marketing strategy.

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