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Making mentoring equitable



Last week I saw this post on LinkedIn by DEI consultant and leadership coach Tara Robertson. I was so excited to see how generous she’s being with her time and what a wonderful opportunity this is for folks. Not surprisingly, the response was overwhelming; she says she had to close the application in a day or so after more than 100 people raised their hands.


It got me thinking about successful mentoring relationships. A lot of people like to say that the best mentoring relationships occur naturally. This is intuitively true, because in these cases the mentoring is built on an existing connection and mutual respect.


But leaving mentoring to chance is likely to create an inequitable gap. The reason is affinity bias. We tend to be drawn toward colleagues we see as similar to us. We start up small talk with folks who share our pop culture interests, hobbies, style preferences, senses of humor, and yes, often, racial identity. And the easier it is to start up conversations, the more likely you will form a longer term connection.


Which means, if you’re at an organization where a lot of people share your interests, preferences, and race, you are more likely to have mentoring opportunities naturally grow. And conversely, if you are in a marginalized minority, there is a smaller chance of hitting it off with someone who could end up mentoring you. It happens, of course, but it’s tougher. And if there’s a particular senior person with the skills you are looking for, they may already be gravitating toward someone who looks like them.


That’s why a structured mentoring program can be a good idea. The offer that Tara is making is an example of investing in equity—specifically calling for people from underrepresented groups to apply, and giving herself a process to consider the applicants so that her own biases don’t make up her mind for her.


Of course, matching is just the beginning. It’s crucial to support mentors and mentees with clear expectations, training (including on unconscious bias and how to be a good mentor/mentee) and accountability follow-ups to make sure the pairings are sticking.


If all goes well, mentoring across lines of difference can be very rewarding. As with all opportunities to increase diversity in our lives, we inevitably learn and grow from the perspectives and experiences of people different from us. Mentoring like this can be a mutually enriching, two-way exchange.


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