Is It time to Disrupt Mentorship?

The question of whether mentorship models work for women and other equity seeking groups has unexpectedly preoccupied me for the last 10 years.  Sifting through my research for my book The Feminist Mentorship Gap, which is currently in progress, I am wondering whether there is a need to completely disrupt mentorship in all its various modes. Is it time to disrupt mentorship?

Mentorship has been around a long, long time. The first use of the word and depiction of a “mentor” appears in Book II of Homer’s Odyssey. Before leaving for the Trojan War, Odysseus asks his friend Mentor to not simply look after Telemachus, his son, but to prepare him to lead. 

Right now, you may be thinking, “that’s nice, but besides being a completely boring cocktail party factoid or possible Jeopardy question, so what?” Which is a totally reasonable response. But it does directly relate to mentorship today. In addition to spawning the word mentorship, this passage framed the way mentorship and formal mentorship programs are viewed and function. 

Mentor was not just a friend, but he was a wise trusted advisor and teacher. The relationship dynamic between Mentor and Telemachus was both top-down and paternal. Mentor was a counsellor whose role was to train and prepare the young Telemachus to rule. He was the older individual who gives his time, knowledge and energy to help a younger man grow his potential.

Does this mentoring model sound familiar?

While Homer didn’t invent mentorship, he depicted a foundational form of human relations from which today’s mentorship models flow. Across professions and cultures, contemporary mentorship continues to embrace a top-down paternal power dynamic. Little has changed since ancient Greece and that is the problem.

Over the past 7 years as mentorship program and community builder, I have heard countless anecdotes and read research papers on the failure of mentorship programs, and specifically the failire in meeting the needs of women, LGBTQI2 persons and racialized persons. One common thread can be traced back to this traditional top-down dynamic and model.

Mentorship models are stuck. They are stuck in a one-way paternal pattern. The mentee is forever a child in the eyes of their mentor. Putting aside the Freudian and psychodynamic overtones, the crux of the problem comes down a lopsided power dynamic.

For women, LGBTQI2, racialized persons and other equity seeking groups, the power dynamics of mentorship are doubly fraught. These mentees entering a traditional mentorship relationship already contend with empowerment inequities and institutional barriers. Traditional mentorship models echo and reinforce the same power imbalance through their structure. No matter how diligent the mentor, the imbalance is there.

Perhaps it’s time to disrupt mentorship models. This means redefining or renaming mentorship. Specifically, how mentorship is viewed as a top-down transmission of experience into something else. The coaching or sponsorship trend may offer some insight and disruption. It’s too early to tell.

But perhaps it’s time to re-think the way formal mentorship programs are designed.   

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