Mentoring Outside Your Comfort Zone 2
Once again, welcome back to our series on ways to be an ally to women in tech! In a previous post, we talked about some ways managers/mentors can make your physical and virtual spaces more conducive to a healthy professional relationship.
In this post, we’ll dig into some of the hardest parts of allyship: keeping it up, even when the people you’re advocating for aren’t there to see it; and navigating complicated feelings that can arise in any close working relationship.
When they aren’t there
One of the most important benefits of mentorship is that the mentor is able to advocate for the mentee, even/especially when they aren’t there to advocate for themselves.
Regardless of gender identity, pay attention to how you talk about your direct reports when they aren’t there: are you advocating for them based on their professional skills and potential?
Notice how your cis male colleagues and friends talk about their direct reports who are women or non-binary when the direct reports aren’t there, and notice how you react. Are you calling out (or calling in) sexist/cissexist behavior when you see it.
- There are times when promotions or other career opportunities are based on experience, and times when it’s based on “potential” - a term that on its own, is nebulous at best. Be clear about what “potential” means for your team/organization/industry. (For example, on my support team, “having potential” means displaying curiosity, skill in researching things they don't already know, and a genuine appreciation for and understanding of the work our clients do.) If it’s not carefully defined, the word “potential” can be a not-so-subtle stand-in for "reminds me of myself at that point in my career,” and that leads to promoting mostly people whose identity is close to your own.
Okay, so this is the hard one. We’re all humans here, and sometimes humans have inconvenient feelings.
If you have romantic feelings for the person who’s reporting to you, or who’s asked you to be their mentor, you need to take responsibility for how you act about those feelings. It is not about trusting them to act appropriately, or trusting that “things will be fine” without your intervention; you have more power in this relationship, and it's about trusting yourself to act appropriately. If after some careful thinking, you don't trust yourself: good on you for being self-aware, but don’t let that stand in the way of their career growth. Advocate for them to other people who could be in a better position to mentor them.
If you don’t have those feelings for your direct report/mentee but you sense that they have those feelings toward you: it’s on you to Keep Things Professional. If the vibes you're getting are very strong and/or make you uncomfortable, it’s okay to say no to the mentoring relationship. If you believe in their well-defined potential, advocate for them to others who might be in a better position to have that relationship in a more productive way.
All of this is difficult, and it takes work and conscious effort. As someone who’s benefited from these kinds of relationships throughout my career (in and out of tech), I’m willing to bet that you’ll find that effort pays off tremendously both for you and for the folks you manage/mentor.
There are lots more resources out there, of course, and I’m happy to discuss my favorites with you in the comments if you’re interested. Here are the ones linked in these posts for easy access:
- Kate Ashford on why men don’t mentor women: https://www.themuse.com/advice/why-men-dont-mentor-younger-womenand-how-we-can-change-that
- Suzanne Samin on non-binary gender identity FAQs: https://www.bustle.com/articles/74316-12-questions-about-non-binary-gender-identity-youve-been-afraid-to-ask-and-real-answers
- RAINN’s statistics on sexual violence: https://www.rainn.org/statistics/victims-sexual-violence
- Captain Awkward on navigating social spaces with your direct reports: https://captainawkward.com/2016/04/13/852-853-goofus-and-gallant-attempt-mentoring-young-women/
- Sian Ferguson on calling in vs. calling out: http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/01/guide-to-calling-in/
Author bio: Rachel Hands is the Senior Manager of Client Administration for Patron Technology. She's a certified Salesforce Advanced Administrator and Force.com Developer (soon-to-be App Builder!) and has been a Salesforce nerd since 2010.