[Originally posted on 3/28/2017, seeding content from elsewhere]
One of my friends asked me about the sorts of things that I experience when mentoring women. I didn’t know how to answer that question without giving away details that should be confidential. So I’ve written this instead, which provides a piece of the answer in a form that I think is more useful. This is …
Rico’s Advice for Mentoring Women
1. If you aren’t going to enjoy it, don’t do it.
While I’d like many men to do this, this can’t be some kind of chore. Believe me if you view it as a chore you will be unable to avoid telegraphing that and then the whole thing is useless. You can find some other way to be an ally.
2. Respect your mentee
Almost everything else I’m going to write is actually expounding on this point, as I’m sure you will see. But start with this: she has already come far enough that she deserves your respect. Give it freely. You must not begin with the notion that she deserves it less than a man, or that your mentorship is some form of benign sympathy.
3. Create a comfortable environment
There isn’t one answer for how to do this, but in my experience, anything that is more like a work clinic is the wrong answer. It’s everything from the smile on your face when you greet her to the excitement you show listening to her progress and the consternation when you hear about unnecessary setbacks. You’re going to have to decide things like “how much laughing is there going to be”, and that may sound goofy but it’s important. Are you good at telling jokes? If you are then it may be just the ticket to helping your mentee get comfortable. If not so much, then you’ll have to find some other device to set her at ease.
4. Optimize for a long relationship
A mentorship can be very focused on one specific problem, or a few problems, but in my opinion those are not the best ones. If you view each mentee as an opportunity to create a wonderful friend and colleague — someone you will know for decades — it will change the way you think about your work together. It may change the way you think about working with women entirely in fact. Your own support system of senior men and women is likely to be invaluable to you and your mentee, especially as years pass. You may be surprised how many former mentees become part of your own support network!
5. Demystify yourself as soon as possible
You may start from a position of power, where your mentee views you as some kind of infallible person with a perfect career. There are no such people. The sooner she realizes that you made mistakes along the way and you went through many of the same things she’s going through now, the better. It’s much easier to talk to a person that’s made mistakes than a person who is seemingly perfect so you must discard that sort of armor.
6. Tell stories
For my money, it’s more fun and more memorable to explain things in terms of stories. Even if the story is just to communicate facts, it makes things more memorable, and more fun. Recently I told the story of how my 1st year algebra professor taught me the RSA algorithm… and why it turned out to be important. Of course the fact that I learned it in that context isn’t relevant but it makes the experience more human. So, if you can, don’t just teach a lesson, tell the story of how you learned the lesson. The best stories are often the ones that are self-deprecating (see #5).
You are going to be learning as much from the relationship as your mentee is. Trust me on this. But you can’t do that if you aren’t listening carefully. This person has a lot to teach you about their world and their experience. And that’s just the least of it. She will tell you important things about your own organization and your peers and your processes. She will provide you with the insights you need to make necessary changes. Or at the very least, things that should be investigated. Don’t miss out on this because you’re too focused on teaching to learn.
8. Practice your withering stare
If a woman you mentor happens to be good looking you’re likely to get some flack for spending a lot of time with her. God forbid anyone should hear laughing coming out of your office… “What are they doing in there?” This kind of thing happens fairly consistently. The point is that you are probably going to encounter some men that need an education about the value of mentorships. You should be prepared for that. This might give you insight into what your mentee faces daily.
9. A day will come when she will arrive “broken”
If you plan to know someone for long enough, there is a 100% chance that they will “break” some day. I can’t say for sure what the cause of will be, but something. You’re going to want to help put humpty-dumpty back together on that day. In order for you to help you must have forged enough of a relationship that your mentee will come talk to you. At that point, one of the most useful things you can do is listen and provide perspective. Some of what happens is fairly normal stuff with a fairly diagnosable root cause. These are the times when a person needs to pick themselves up and dust themselves off. You can go a long way in repairing her self-esteem by talking about the times you broke in a similar way (I don’t know anyone who never broke; anyone who thinks I went nearly 29 years and never broke needs to hear more of my stories :) ).
10. If you have two female mentees, it’s likely that “Something Very Bad” will happen to one
The math on this is astonishing and I don’t think this is the place to get into all that. By “something very bad” I don’t mean like an embarrassing meeting or a failed product — that’s probably #9. I mean that she’s going to be attacked. You’re going to have to be there to tell her it wasn’t her fault and she didn’t deserve it and it’s not like the other normal hard things that all engineers have to go through. Your support might be the thing that helps her to find the way forward. The attack may be a terrifying near miss, or it might be worse, far worse. In all the cases, she will have some very hard choices in front of her and there will be very few people she’s even willing to talk to. You can’t let her down on that day.
Now I’ve been writing about women, but a lot of this can be reframed for mentoring generally. Give it some thought. Most of my “secret sauce” is up there somewhere.
It’d like to end on this note though: whatever it is that you do that works for you, it can’t end in the room with one mentee. You have to take it out and let it be seen. If you see bad behavior you have to call it out. If you see less respect you have to call that out. It may be tricky to do this in a supportive way, but you’ll get better at it.
Be careful out there.