Mentoring programs are a popular and important tool to support employees in developing skills and advancing at work. At their best, they provide a way for senior managers to nurture promising employees, sometimes by advocating for them at key moments, and other times by helping them navigate the challenges of their roles.
But mentoring can also miss the mark. Senior managers can end up perpetuating noninclusive and harmful norms of an “ideal worker” instead of empowering their mentees to challenge the status quo.
In our research about mentoring relationships, we seldom see mentors use their roles to engage in identity work that celebrates the unique characteristics of their mentees. Instead, mentors often advise mentees on how to “fit in” and assimilate to toxic behaviors and gendered cultures at organizations. Mentoring becomes another tool of oppression rather than one of enlightenment and inclusion.
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Here’s an example: Latika was a mentee paired with Agnes in the formal mentoring program of their financial services organization. Agnes had risen up the ranks through hard work and had a reputation as a tough but fair leader. In their first meetings, Agnes emphasized the sacrifices she had made. “You cannot be halfway in,” she said. “If they want you to close business deals over late-night meetings, you do that. If getting things done means skipping lunch, you do that. You have to show that your work is the most important thing in your life.” Agnes told Latika that as a woman, she would have to do even more than a man to prove herself.
While Latika appreciated Agnes’s directness, she was disappointed. She wondered whether it is truly impossible for someone as accomplished as Agnes to challenge the culture of overwork and discrimination. She wondered what following in Agnes’s footsteps would mean for her health, well-being, and work-life balance. She wondered whether that is all that mentors do — help people like her adjust to making trade-offs.
That disappointment is not unjustified. Ambitious young people, especially women and people of color, are looking for role models who are pioneers not just in achieving personal success but in changing unhealthy and inequitable cultures for the better. They’re looking for ways to succeed without molding themselves to fit the definition of so-called ideal workers and without the requirement to limit their identity expression.