Honoring Identity in Mentoring Relationships

Many researchers have found a positive link between having a mentor and achieving career success, but every mentoring relationship is different. What makes a mentoring relationship effective? In the Forté webinar, Women Lead: Mentoring Across Differences, Dr. Kimberly Griffin explained that it’s about more than the personal and professional outcomes. She said, “When we’re trying to determine what good mentoring is, we really have to think about the type and nature of interactions between two people.”

Kimberly is the Associate Dean for Graduate Studies and Faculty Affairs in the College of Education at the University of Maryland. She’s also a professor at the university, and she has researched mentoring and professional development as part of her work. (View her TEDx talk on avoiding common mentoring pitfalls.)

In the Women Lead webinar, Kimberly spoke about the challenges of being in a mentoring relationship with someone who has a very different identity from you. Mentors and mentees can strengthen their relationships by acknowledging and affirming each other’s identities.

Why Ignoring Identity Isn’t the Answer

Some mentors actively try to leave personal identity outside of the mentoring relationship; they aim to be “gender neutral” or “color blind.” Kimberly referred to this as “identity-blind mentoring,” and explained that even when it is well-intentioned, it reflects a perception that identity doesn’t matter.

She said, “There’s this fundamental commitment to treating everybody equally or the same, which is somewhat different than wanting to treat people equitably.”

While equal treatment offers everyone the same assistance, equitable treatment starts with considering what resources and support each individual needs and how to best provide them.

The Challenges of Identity-Based Mentoring

Instead of ignoring identity, identity-based mentoring takes the opposite approach, matching individuals based on their shared identities. It’s based on the principle of homophily — the idea that birds of a feather flock together, and that people feel more connected to others they perceive to be similar to them.

Kimberly said, “Research affirms that women and people of color feel like there’s a deeper level of trust in their relationships when they’re able to find someone to mentor them where identities are shared.”

Identity-based mentoring may help people feel closer to each other, but Kimberly pointed out that it also reinforces existing power structures. If white men in senior positions are only mentoring other white men, they are conferring benefits on individuals who are already privileged, and that’s not the only drawback. She said, “If we rely on identity matching, women and people of color will continue to have heavier mentoring loads, because there are fewer of them in senior roles.”

Consider Other Dimensions of Identity

For a better sense of how good mentoring matches are made, Kimberly and her colleagues, Vicki Baker and Meghan Pifer, looked beyond personal identity and began to consider broader notions of fit. One example is professional identity, which includes what you do, your interests, and your strengths. If you share a professional identity with someone, you may be able to offer each other valuable insights, even if your personal identities are different.

As an alternative to identity-blind or identity-based mentoring, Kimberly recommended equity-minded mentoring. Equity-minded mentoring starts with being thoughtful and mindful about each other’s identities. Kimberly and said, “Instead of ignoring identity, invite it into the room. It may not always want to enter — individuals may not always want to talk about it — but really communicate that identity is always welcome. Be curious about who you both are in the relationship and what identities matter to you and why.”

In the full Women Lead: Mentoring Across Differences webinar, Kimberly shared a framework for supporting equity in mentoring relationships, explained why equity-based mentoring is so important, and shared personal examples from her experiences with mentors and mentees. The webinar was recorded and is now available on demand.

A full library of previous Forté webinars is available to Premium Access Pass members. For $100/year, Access Pass members receive exclusive invitations to Women Lead webinars. If your company is a Forté partner you may be entitled to free Access Pass. Check our partners to see if your organization is involved. Access Pass members also have exclusive use of the Forté Job Center; you can browse positions and post your resume to be seen by leading companies seeking top talent.

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