The Wednesday Weigh-in: Mentoring Edition

According to a new study by LinkedIn, one in five professional women in the U.S. has never had a mentor.

The survey of nearly 1,000 women found that 52% of women without mentors said they’d just never found “someone appropriate” and 67% of women who had never been mentors said it was because they’d never been asked. Yet 82% of women agreed that mentorship is important.

The good news is that with more working women than ever before, finding women mentors seems to be getting easier. Over half of Gen Y women had been mentored by another woman, compared to 43% of Gen X women and only 34% of Boomers.

I’ve never had a shortage of truly incredible mentors–both men and women–in school, on the soccer field, in my career, and on the interwebs. But then again, I’ve also been operating in pretty women-dominated arenas for awhile, so I probably have a skewed sense.

So what about you? Have you had a hard time finding mentors? If so, how come? Is it because you are too picky, lazy, or full of yourself? What are the barriers to effective mentoring between women in your experience?

Atlanta, GA

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. Maya has previously worked at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health and was a fellow at Mother Jones magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. A Minnesota native, she currently lives, writes, edits, and bakes bread in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

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  • seth

    How does that compare to the rates for men? I’m male and have yet to find a good mentor (yes, I’m too picky AND too lazy, or just unlucky thus far).

  • Angharad Davies

    Can I ask what a mentor is? I’d have assumed an informal relationship, but this implies something more formal involving a “will you be my mentor / can I be your mentor” conversation, a selection process etc. Are there specific things mentors have to do to maintain their role?

  • Emma Staffaroni

    I think this is an important question. Mentoring is so tricky in the context of hyper-individualist American culture; conventional wisdom tells us that even if we’ve relied on so many people for help along the way, in the end our accomplishments belong to us. It’s like saying you’ve baked a cake out of…cake… instead of acknowledging the ingredients, the recipe, the inspiration, etc. Even if logically we know this is foolish, in practice we can still feel pressured to pretend (to others, and to ourselves) that we can do it by ourselves.

    I am a graduate student, and mentoring/networking is extremely crucial for my “career.” I’m also in the field of education, and so much the ed world depends on whom you know, where you went to school, and what kind of cultural capital you have to offer your school’s staff/student body. My mother has always reminded me to stay in touch with my past mentors, teachers in whose classrooms I’ve worked, professors of education, etc. But even recognizing how the world works and having my mom’s wisdom on my side, I often still feel anxious about asking for help from mentors.

    For example, when it comes to reaching out to past mentors, I’ll worry that the person (be it a professor, a professional, or a friend of a friend) thinks I am “looking for something”- like I am using her or him. This is such a weird complex, since I know that I personally feel overjoyed to get emails and notes from my old students/mentees. I also fear that I’ve offended someone by neglecting contact for a few years, only to require her services for a job application or reference. This has translated to further neglect of past connections, as I work myself into a frenzy over whether this person wants to hear from me or not.

    However, I’ve recently started using a couple of mental commands to remind myself that this is silly–that my past mentors, who nurtured and helped me become the woman and teacher and student that I am.
    “You have nothing to lose- if you don’t ask, you definitely won’t receive their help.”
    “Everybody needs connections and references, and they recognize the importance of these networks.”
    “You left this person on good terms, and there is no reason why s/he would not be thrilled to hear from you, even if s/he cannot help.”

    Taking the plunge has always been rewarding. I recently got an email back from my 11th grade English teacher, who told me she was very moved by the fact that I contacted her and shared lots of fond memories. I try to visualize these positive responses when I start to worry about asking for help.

  • Stella

    The biggest obstacle for me was that there were very few women at the top in my profession, even fewer who had partners and kids, and the remaining 2-3 people were too busy (competing with men who worked half as half as hard due to having stay at home wives) to take on too many mentees. So it was partially the lack of mentors who I felt could offer me meaningful advice.

    I also think a huge reason women do not seek out mentors is because they are so focused on proving their competence on the “substance” of their job (to dispel lingering suspicion our ladybrains cannot do the work) that they do not focus on the networking/schmoozing aspect of it.

    In retrospect on my career I realize that self-promotion, meeting and impressing the right people and seeming calm, cool and collected was far more important than getting every comma in the correct place.

  • nicole mercier

    My mentor tried to have sex with me outside of his marriage, and I ended up quitting grad school because it creeped me out so sadly.

    • Maya

      Oh my god, that sucks. I’m so sorry.

      • nicole mercier

        It was really confusing for me at the time. I admired this person so much that I loved his mind and work. I considered him my mentor and friend. I think he truly admired me too, but without the respect it required to keep it professional. Eventually his praise became more familiar and suggestive. And he lied about his marriage. It was this weird effort to slowly seduce my admiration into something it wasn’t. Or maybe he just hoped it was something it wasn’t. Anyway, I established boundaries and he respected them but the damage was done. I had a full scholarship to grad school (I didn’t even need to do any teaching); all I had to do was learn, be mentored, and do a project (I was studying forestry because I want to save ladyslippers and salamanders). I dropped out without explanation to the directors. It was just too gross for me to focus. Now I live on the west coast and have learned a lot! But there is a lot of responsibility mentors have and this story should remind people to keep it respectable.

  • nazza

    I have found mentors without too much problems, but I’ve found that sometimes I outgrow them. Sometimes I grow old enough to realize that they have substantial character flaws and personality defects themselves that get in the way. But for the handful of mentors that I do currently have, I have never observed a major problem, and I’m glad I have them.

  • Cat

    It never occurred to me that it was okay to ASK for a mentor – actually, until I just read this article. When I was a year out of college – confused and scared in a new town – I expressed to a girlfriend that I wished I had someone to just give me direction. She told me I had to just “pull myself up by my bootstraps.” I never sought anyone’s “help” after that. I’m 38 now.

  • dcardona

    I had a mentor, and I learned a lot from her, but she dropped me after I had my first child. After that I learned a lot, too, but mainly about how not to treat people.

  • radicallyqueer

    My experience, regardless of gender, is that it’s hard to find a mentor because of that level of commitment that implies. I’ve had teachers and professors and older colleagues that I really liked and got valuable advice from, but I was too shy to, for example, suggest a monthly lunch or some other kind of regular opportunity to pick their brains. I think formal mentoring programs are valuable in this way, because it gives younger people an opportunity to identify themselves as looking for a mentor and older people an opportunity to identify their interest in mentoring.