Mentorship

Welcome to this small segment of our diverse and inclusive world. This column has the intention of musing on, reporting about and considering diversity initiatives and various threads of our society’s tapestry of identities and interactions.

Contributor: Tabin Brooks (Charles Sturt University)

Mentorship is a facet of diversity initiatives that seems somewhat neglected within the discussions about creating workplaces, teams and organisations that represent the true composition of our society, but its ability to create long term levelling of playing fields should not be underestimated. Mentorship is rarely conducted in isolation, and operates under a number of constraints. A good mentor-mentee relationship can bring forth the best in both individuals, as well as transmit intergenerational ideas, competencies and attitudes in both directions. This relationship is also an avenue to non-nepotistic opportunity creation for both people, as the development of a personal connection allows both to gain an accurate understanding of their capabilities and challenges. Mentorship is an often silent partner in the cliche of “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know“, but it is not an opportunity that is open to all equally. In order to extrapolate on potential avenues for inequality, an understanding of the “standard model” is needed.

I have been very fortunate to have experienced a variety of mentorship styles – it might be successfully argued that the first of these was the instruction provided by those who raised me. This initial framework provided at a young age is an inescapable part of the jigsaw of privilege. For those who hail from academic, religious or political families, access as well as highlighting of importance is implicit in the parental collection of resources, whether this be on a physical bookshelf, or within the cabinet of DVD’s or the shaped lists of recommendations provided by various algorithms. This phenomenon occurs in any family, but those with leanings towards power, knowledge and leadership are more likely to have resources available to consider a developing world-view against. Whether this exposure to texts is biblical, political, historical – the resources available to shape the next generation of thought influencers and potential leaders is found firstly within the home. The first mentor relationship is created through the observance of parental behaviour by children, and shapes behaviours and attitudes depending on those that the child is able to observe.

From this home environment and initial frameworking of a world-view, the next step of development is the challenging of views and refining of personal belief within these initial overall frameworks as a response to the interaction with others beliefs or events that necessitate an opinion. This can happen within educational environments (through interaction with authority figures and peers with diverse backgrounds), within family structures (particularly in response to family restructuring in response to perceived violations of the dominant familial framework), or even in the workplace (through productive interaction with people from diverse backgrounds, as well as in response to workplace policies and stated attitudes).

What does this look like in practice? Let’s talk about Amilee, Brian and Chagga, three hypothetical composites of young people with different histories. In reality, these composite individuals are taken from my own personal experiences and relationships, and so there will by definition be an inherent bias towards white-presenting, Christian-predominant Australian background descriptions from both regional and high-density living situations in New South Wales. There is also an underlying assumption that each one of these young people has an internal motivation to engage with novelty and opportunity.

Amilee has a stable home life, with an actively guiding sole parent who was university educated in economics and financially comfortable. Her engagement with new ideas and topics in her homework and experience of the world explained by her parent is biased through the lens of their learnings of economics. Textbooks and other repositories of knowledge in her household growing up gave understandings of poverty, global trade and game theory. Her operating framework is based within the economic assessment of humans at scale – an understanding that rests on the assumption that people’s behaviour tends towards the most logically profitable motive. Following this most logically profitable motive in one’s own life should result in success – and cognitive dissonance can arise in the event that this is not the case (either by encountering one who succeeds through following illogical and unprofitable motives, or through personal failure despite choosing profit and logic). Amilee proceeds through university, completes a degree in law, engineering or medicine (as these have implicit status, power potential, and earning exchange), and enters the workforce. Each of these three trades deals with a narrow section of either physical or human designs, with understandings of behaviour as it relates to the specific field – with a heavy emphasis on risk assessment. Amilee has the fortune to work in a company with strong ethics and a defined mentorship program to develop her skills, and so avoids negative interpersonal relationships based on the creation of small-scale power dynamics (which can cause long-term distress). Amilee as a mentee, is provided with someone who has decades more experience in the industry, has a better understanding of the pitfalls and policies, and can learn ways of being that allow her to avoid risk and create success. The diversities that she encounters are likely to involve international relationships and interactions between those with different familial pasts.

Brian also has a stable home life. His parents actively guide, but have been in long-term blue collar employment. Their experience of their own education involved eagerness to engage in preferred work. As a result, their experiences contain many interpersonal relationships – and of particular note, interpersonal relationships that require the development of trust. Whether these relationships form within a factory environment, an aged care home, or in a retail environment, the development of the ability to create associations of trust to enable productive work is a necessary skill in each of these environments. Whether Brian goes into tertiary education or engages in similar blue collar work, his background framework is one of understanding people, situations and relationships to avoid risk and create success. This framework is non-restrictive, but due to work commitments (as many of these positions are shift-based) Brian’s experiences include more conversational negotiation rather than the transmission of academic frameworks. When entering into a mentee relationship within an area outside of his familial past, Brian is likely to be starting from the ground-up in terms of knowledge and experience. This, I have observed, can be seen in one of two ways by Brian’s potential mentors: as an opportunity for development or as a personal judgement of capability.

Chagga’s upbringing was defined by a bookshelf full of humanities texts. As policy makers and academic aligned employees, their parents encouraged a healthy interest in works of both fiction and non-fiction. Again, with a stable home life, Chagga was provided with opportunity to engage with ideas from the fields of human geography, global development and social and cultural initiatives. Their operating framework included the understandings of Marx, Lenin, Greer and Orwell – those texts that present problem-based narratives of flawed humanistic attempts to create equality. These texts propose also that statements of fact must be examined for bias, and that any assumption is worthy of questioning. Chagga also becomes through this process aware of the ideas of corruption and nepotism and gains an understanding that in many cases illogical motives often do create success, through either financial profitability or through the actions of those that support those motives. Chagga’s engagement with power structures is defined through this lens, creating delicate balances of trust within those power structures. If the mentor-mentee relationship is strong in trust (that both parties act in the way the other expects them to, and adhere to mutually agreed on ethical and moral boundaries), Chagga’s early exposure to ideas pertaining to the wider issues of humanity can be developed through challenge and discussion. If however, the relationship is low on trust, disengagement as an offensive maneuver against flawed paradigms may come into play.

Each of these composite and hypothetical individuals have defined avenues for success, with potential pitfalls along their path. These diverse histories shape the priorities of each of these mentoring relationships, as well as the range of potential outcomes, while the intersectional concepts of family history, cultural priorities and personal identity influence the nature of potential pitfalls. In the context of diversity and inclusion, each of these relationships may then be additionally impacted through the attitudes and systemic opportunities and shortcomings present within the environment each of them find themselves within. For example, if Amilee finds herself in the unfortunate position of being mentored by someone with black and white thinking on gender roles, this is likely to influence the success she experiences – because the expectations of the mentor are either obviously unachievable (be a man) or artificially lowered (you’ll be having a baby in a few years and won’t come back). In a similar vein, if Brian experiences elitism and is provided with the implied message from his mentor that his history is a representative assessment of his current capability, or he encounters racism, his discouragement may cause complete disconnection and rejection of the institution in which he experienced such insults. Each one of these individuals has their own range of experiences and capabilities to bring to the table – the mentor relationship provides opportunity to learn from others and gain awareness of experiences and situations beyond the personal, and allows for discussion and refining of ideas that allow young adults to stand on the shoulders of giants.

For those who may have no family connections to discover a pool of potential mentors; whose personal presentation may violate external expectations; who may experience interpersonal relationship challenges due to neurodiversity, or adverse childhood experiences; who may not be aware that this form of interpersonal relationship is a possibility, and as a consequence not know how or when is appropriate to ask for this form of professional guidance, this can be an inaccessible opportunity. To combat this, the structural implementation of mentoring programs within institutions can create awareness on the ground level, and the increased interpersonal networks created through the World Wide Web allow for students from all backgrounds to gain global access to those with more, and more varied experiences.

Drop a comment below: have you had positive mentoring experiences? What made them positive? What could have been done better? If you didn’t have a mentor in your work life, what could have helped you with the challenges you faced? Do you have advice for any potential mentors or mentees?

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