Where Are All the Female Mentors?
For Millennial women, finding guidance has never been more important—or so difficult to secure. Why are they having such a hard time?
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Recently, I stood onstage alongside a high-school girl, acting out scenes from a screenplay she’d written. I was required to play an oddball, Photoshop-obsessed boy, and then a terrifyingly ancient, hunchbacked old man. Public performances usually paralyze me: Once, in college, I couldn’t eat for three days prior to having to make a speech. But since signing on to be a mentor for Girls Write Now, an organization that pairs teenagers with professional writers, I’ve found myself game for situations I used to consider excruciating.
Of course, the goal is to empower my mentee. And over the course of ten months, she has awed me with her courage, wit, and insight. A recent immigrant to the U.S., she began the program timid about communicating in English; now she reads aloud from stories, essays, and plays that she wrote in her second language. Our performance was one of many at a culminating event, a reading at Scholastic headlined by essayist and novelist Roxane Gay. The mentees were more than capable of reading with the famous writer: All of them were startlingly self-possessed, not to mention talented.
We adults can’t take all the credit, but the research does indicate that mentors have an impact. A comprehensive evaluation, published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior, linked mentoring to positive psychological outcomes, like improved confidence and healthier relationships, as well as increased motivation and expectations. Although mentoring, the study’s authors note, doesn’t guarantee quantifiable benefits like higher salaries or promotions, it does offer certain intangibles, such as a greater sense of self-worth.
But in the workplace, young women may have trouble finding an older woman to advise them. According to an article in Forbes, in office environments, there simply aren’t enough female mentors to go around. Women outnumber men in entry-level positions, but then their ranks diminish at the management and executive levels. And women who are at the top often find their time monopolized by other tasks. Adam Grant and Sheryl Sternberg reported for the New York Times that there is often a sexist expectation that female employees do the lion’s share of “office housework” in addition to their other job responsibilities, leaving them with little time to support junior colleagues.
For Millennials, the generation born between 1980 and 2000, the mentor-mentee discrepancy is particularly pronounced: They outnumber their predecessors, the Gen Xers, 88 million to 50 million, and the Baby Boomers are now moving into retirement. One might expect that Millennials, dubbed the “Me Me Me Generation” and widely perceived to be “entitled, needy, and self-centered,” will expect much from mentors, only to find they aren’t there at all.
But when hasn’t the older generation looked upon the younger one with trepidation? A study published in the Harvard Business Review paints a more nuanced portrait, noting that while Millennials’ expectations are indeed high, they’re also driven, engaged, and socially conscious. And they do want guidance from the higher-ups at their companies, the study’s authors say. This cohort, many of who grew up using social media, are accustomed to near-constant feedback, and will seek coaching from workplace superiors.
Millennials, then, may feel the lack of support particularly keenly. When she enrolled in a graduate program focusing on nonproliferation and terrorism studies, Kirstin Kelley quickly learned how not having a mentor can impact motivation, enthusiasm, and job prospects.
Kelley’s interest in the highly specialized field stemmed from her undergraduate psychology and sociology studies; she wanted to explore how cognitively average people sometimes end up carrying out acts of terror. She saw herself going into diplomacy with the insights she gleaned from her program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, whose alumni include U.S. representatives, diplomats, and ambassadors. Kelly was led to believe that the prestigious program would lead to many opportunities, but upon arrival she realized that the environment was heavily male and military-centric.
Of the 50 people in her class, only eight were women, and it was very hard to make it without a mentor, Kelley said. She noticed that students’ military experience was highly valued by faculty, and some classmates had even served in the Special Forces, the elite Army units that women are not permitted to join. Competing with them for attention proved impossible.
Still, she did her best to connect with potential advisers, making excellent grades and trying to strike up conversations at happy hours. But professors would often send invitations to specific students, and it was “very much a boys’ club environment,” Kelley said. “There was a weird dynamic where professors were picking students to mentor who had something to offer them in terms of networking.”
Since the program is one-of-a-kind, Kelley said, the professors are well-connected, and without their personal recommendation it’s very difficult to find a job. Feeling isolated and unsupported, Kelley turned to the campus’ female-staffed journal, which ended up being her sanctuary. Ultimately, she graduated early and shifted her focus to writing. Only two of the women she graduated with said they intended to stay in the counterterrorism field.
The experience taught Kelley that mentorship can still make a difference to young women, but that the kind of mentor they seek may need to change. After graduation, she found a number of groups online where female professionals share resources and tips, and celebrate each other’s accomplishments; such Internet-based, women-friendly spaces could make up for the dwindling prospects for face-to-face mentorship.
Dr. Jessie Voigts, who mentors hundreds of teen travel bloggers through her business Wandering Educators, has found this to be the case as well. For Voigts and the adolescents she works with, what she calls “continual mentoring”—engaging in quick Facebook chats or Skype sessions on an as-needed basis—works better than setting aside a block of time to meet in person each week.
Mentoring often affects young people more than they realize, Voigts said. She recalled a student she worked with who had grown up with diplomat parents, and was already quite globally-minded. But years later, the young woman reached out to say that their relationship had nevertheless had a huge impact: “She told me I’d taught her to pay attention to and honor her own feelings,” Voigts said.
Millennials should feel comfortable reaching out to be mentored, Voigts said. “When I’m interested in somebody’s work, I just email them or message them on their Facebook page,” she said. “I’ve found that most people really want to talk. Find people doing things you love and just ask—when people do that to me, I respond right away.”
Marina Petrano was a student when she met Allison Williams, who was working as a guest artist in her school. Petrano, who was already passionate about performance, was drawn to Allison’s work as the owner of a theater and circus company called Aerial Angels. After graduating, Petrano interned with the business and was mentored by Williams, and is now poised to take over as owner.
Petrano agreed that, given the obstacles Millennial women face in finding mentors, they need to be proactive. Being mentored can instill more self-respect, but it’s also necessary to take yourself seriously when looking for a mentor: “Your time is important too. Look for someone who will be invested in you,” Petrano said.
Williams teaches her mentees specific business skills, like how to negotiate with clients, as well as how to be assertive without relinquishing their femininity. She argued that mentoring is more important for young women than it is for men, because generally, “Most men already think they’re good enough. It’s much easier for a guy to feel like he deserves to be somewhere, whereas women are taught to be supportive, polite, and helpful.”
Starting a mentoring relationship with young women while they’re still in high school can help combat this kind of socialization, according to staff at iMentor, a non-profit that pairs adolescents from low-income communities with adult mentors.
Amanda D’Avria, iMentor’s director of Volunteers, said that mentoring not only instills the self-confidence Dr. Voigts mentioned—the ability to understand and honor one’s own feelings—but also gives girls specific competencies.
“Things like confidence, perseverance, how you carry yourself in a job interview—that’s what comes from a mentoring relationship,” D’Avria said. “By the time college or that first job comes around, mentees are better positioned than they would have been, because they have a mentor in their lives.”
Maya Nussbaum, the founder of Girls Write Now, agreed. “Having a role model and an example of what you can be is invaluable,” she said.
Having taught adolescents—and having been one myself—I’ve learned that behind the smirks and eye rolls, young people are often touchingly receptive to counsel from adults. The most daunting aspect of teaching for me is the awareness that my words might resound throughout a teenager’s life, for good or ill. This isn’t grandiosity: it happened to me. As a high school student, I was near-worshipful of two English teachers who, in retrospect, were my mentors, though I didn’t know it at the time.
Looking back, they were both twentysomethings, likely wrestling with the same nagging self-doubt and confusion I experienced when I was in my 20s. But in my 16-year-old eyes, they were beyond cool, the kinds of adults I wanted to be: intelligent, capable, witty, well-versed in the art, music, literature, and film I wanted to know more about. It never crossed my mind that they might sometimes feel like they didn’t know what they were doing. In addition to the usual class work, they introduced me to writers like Denis Johnson and and filmmakers like Wes Anderson, who, at the time, were horizon-expanding for me. They taught me to write op-eds and screenplays; they lingered after class to talk and treated my ideas with seriousness; they gave honest feedback, the subtext being they believed I was resilient enough to handle it.
Most importantly, they encouraged me. I’d always dabbled in writing, but they made me feel like it could be a tenable life path for me: They told me I had what it takes. Fifteen years later, I still turn their words over in my mind when I get discouraged, and it’s hard to imagine where I might be without them. When I signed on to be a mentor with Girls Write Now, my hope was that I could be for another high school girl what they were for me.
Do Millennial women, with their easy access to endless streams of commentary on everything from eyeliner application to college essays, really have no use for this kind of relationship? I don’t believe so: mentors continue to serve a singular and necessary purpose. This was clear at the reading I participated in for Girls Write Now. I noticed as one of the pairs performed that the mentor had dyed a streak of her hair blue, in a tribute to her mentee’s own vividly colored mane. Mentors take on a role unlike any other, a blending of parent, friend, teacher, and counselor. And even if mentoring doesn’t guarantee a higher income bracket, it does something that can’t be quantified or provided by the Internet: it assures young women they have someone in their corner.
Photo: Girls Write Now
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