Mentoring Outside Your Comfort Zone


Welcome back to our series on ways to be an ally to women in tech! We’re here to provide some resources to men who are interested in helping to make technology a better place for women and nonbinary folks to work.

If you’re reading this, you probably already know that men (who are more likely to be in positions of senior leadership) tend to mentor other men and not women or non-binary folks.  You probably think that’s a problem that we need to address in order to create a more equitable workforce and better serve the interests of the people your company/industry is trying to reach. And maybe you’re also familiar with some of the obstacles folks put up about these relationships:

  • What if something gets miscommunicated or misconstrued? Sexual harassment charges are no joke.
  • What if we do end up in a relationship? Ethics rules are there for a reason.
  • What if people think I just promoted them because they’re attractive, or because the company needs to make our diversity numbers look better? 
  • I could promote Todd instead, and that just seems really safe. (There’s always a Todd.)

All these concerns are real, but they aren’t good reasons to avoid helping to advance the career of someone who could be truly excellent, if only they had the right opportunities.

In this post, we’ll look at some things you can do as a manager/mentor to make your physical and virtual spaces more conducive to a healthy professional relationship. 

Physical and online spaces

When meeting in person, it’s important that the physical space is one that feels safe for the direct report/mentee.

If you’re not convinced of the value of a “safe space”, consider that 1 in 6 adult women have been victims of sexual violence in the U.S., and those odds are higher for non-binary folks. That means there’s a solid chance that the person you’re working with as a direct manager has strong and justifiable feelings about needing to feel safe when they’re physically alone with someone, whether they've personally had that experience or not. Assuming your report is aware of this dynamic and helping them to feel physically safer makes it more likely that your work together will be productive, and that they’ll be receptive to the professional feedback and advice you have to offer. 

Here are a few things you can do when you’re working (or networking) with your mentee in the same physical space:

  • Don’t put yourself between your direct report and the door.
  • Situate yourself so that you’re on the same vertical plane as they are (e.g., don’t stand while they sit, don’t sit on a table or the floor while they’re on a chair).
  • Sit facing them, with enough room that you won’t kick them if you stretch your legs.
  • If physical contact is required, discuss in advance what you intend to do and why, and ask if it’s okay. (“It’d be helpful if I sit next to you so we can look at this spec together, is that okay?”) Make it clear that “no” is an acceptable answer.

Some additional considerations to keep in mind for outside-of-work interactions:

  • If you have a shared calendar at work, put the (public) location of your coffee meeting or networking event in your calendar. (Bonus: If you forget where you’re supposed to meet, it’s in your calendar.)
  • If alcohol is being served, limit your own consumption, and say out loud “I'm only having one drink” or “club soda for me tonight.” If you sense that your direct report/mentee is having too much to drink or is losing judgment, politely take your leave.
  • If you can include others in an outside-of-work event, do so - and make an effort to include other women or non-binary folks.

Navigating online spaces can also be tricky, but it doesn’t have to be.

  • Use your work email to communicate with your direct report/mentee, and treat your communication like what it is: the property of the company you work for. 
  • Use text messaging for coordinating location-based logistics ("we're in room A" or "i'm going to be late to our meeting, my train is stuck").

There’s a lot to think about here, and I’d love to hear your tips for making mentorship relationships feel respectful and trusting. 

In a later post, we’ll dig into the next level of being an awesome ally: what you can and should do to make your working environment better for your direct reports/mentees even when they aren’t present, and what to do with all those feelings.

Rachel Hands

Rachel Hands

Author bio: Rachel Hands is the Senior Manager of Client Administration for Patron Technology. She's a certified Salesforce Advanced Administrator and Developer (soon-to-be App Builder!) and has been a Salesforce nerd since 2010.