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Mentorship as a Tool for Growth, Inclusion, and Equity

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Yejin Lee

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Mentorship has many benefits: it provides access to support in problem-solving, and insights into particular industries and roles. While traditional approaches to mentoring can truly boost someone’s professional development, some models of mentorship can lead to inequitable practices. So how can organizations set up inclusive and equitable mentorship programs or practices that lead to growth?

Why do mentors matter?

Mentors are generally understood as experienced and knowledgeable professionals who teach and nurture the development of a less experienced and knowledgeable individual. In a professional setting, a mentor should influence the personal and professional growth of a mentee. Mentors often focus on supporting a mentee’s professional developmental activities; offer guidance, counseling, instruction, and motivation; and model effective leadership behaviors. The intended result of a mentoring program within a company is to help individuals improve their career outcomes and positively impact employee engagement and retention.

For example, in her recent New York Times article, Lizz Schumer references a study found in the Journal of Applied Psychology, which found that people with mentors are more likely to receive promotions. She says, “When mid- and senior-level employees choose to mentor someone newer in the workforce, they can boost people who may not otherwise have those opportunities and help level the playing field.”

But what happens when a company’s approach to mentoring reinforces an unlevel playing field?

Exclusive mentorship

While acknowledging the power of a professional mentor with clout, Rebecca Greenfield explores how mentorship programs can lead to exclusivity that ultimately hurts women of color in her Bloomberg Business piece. She references research by salary website PayScale, which found that “employees who have a white male advocate often end up with higher pay, and most of those employees are white men.” Women, in particular those who are black and Latinx, are the least likely to develop “such a lucrative connection.” A study released in early 2019 also found that most executives tend to choose proteges who look like them. 

Whether or not these companies intend this to be true, some normative approaches to mentorship can lead to deeply inequitable outcomes. In the same article, Greenfield notes that “several women of color in a variety of industries told Bloomberg that they’ve relied on white men for career advancement because they’re often the gatekeepers to power.” 

Inclusive and equitable approaches to mentorship

There are many ways to rethink one’s approach to mentorship to make sure it is inclusive and equitable. “A mentor traditionally occupies a position of power in the hierarchical structure of an organization relative to the mentee," Sharlene Gandhi writes in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. "But if mentoring is to establish more diversity, equity, and inclusion across sectors, we must reimagine the power dynamic of these two roles.” Enter the model of “reverse mentoring.” 

As the name suggests, reverse mentoring reimagines experience and expertise and understands that new possibilities exist by seeing the relationship as mutually positive and reciprocal. It acknowledges that younger professionals do have something to offer, whether it is related to fluency in technology, understanding of social or cultural trends, or comfort in confronting issues of race. According to Gandhi, reverse mentoring can “break down traditional barriers that impeded the advancement of racial minorities in the workplace” and promote a stronger sense of belonging. 

But an organization does not have to adopt a reverse mentoring model in order to become more thoughtful and conscientious of how unconscious bias can show up. If one is capable of identifying barriers to becoming a mentee, mentoring programs can boost minority representation. Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations found that mentoring programs boosted minority representation at the management level by 9% to 24%. The same study also found that mentoring programs also dramatically improved promotion and retention rates for people of color and women—15% to 35% as compared to non-mentored employees. 

Tips on approaching mentorship more equitably

Whether your organization has a formal mentoring program or your organization's leaders have a more casual approach, here are some tips to make it more equitable:

  1. Give thought to which employees serve as “gatekeepers” of power and decision-making—and who can access their advocacy. It is important to understand who in an organization has the power to decide, whether those decisions are around promotions, salary increases, or professional development opportunities. Equipped with that information, it then becomes important to consider which staff have access to support and advocacy from these individuals. If, for example, the deciders of your organization deal exclusively with middle-management and tend to never engage with entry-level or front-line staff, it may be worth thinking about how to expand access.
  2. Consider the identities of the individuals who have benefited from your mentoring program. Data can be helpful! Take a look at the identities and demographics of the people who benefited/benefit from your organization’s mentoring program. Does the group reflect the diverse identities of your staff? If not, take some time to think about why this may be the case, and how you can thoughtfully make adjustments to accessibility. 
  3. If you are a mentor or want to become one, think about your personal preferences and how they may be informed by implicit bias. Every single person has biases. The key is to identify which ones we may have, and how to actively work against our defaults. Perhaps you prefer to work with mentees who have an Ivy League degree. This may filter out candidates who could not access such an education, which may correlate to socio-economic status, race, immigration status, and more. Take some time to think about what your personal preferences are when selecting a mentee, and reflect on how these preferences may accidentally lead to inequity. 
  4. Encourage mentors to activate their listening skills by being attentive and reflective with their mentees. This will help the individuals benefiting from mentorship to feel more seen and heard, and to shine more brightly.
  5. Reconfigure what it means to be an expert. Following the spirit of reverse mentoring, consider expanding categories of expertise. Perhaps your organization thinks expertise only comes in the form of professional experience, number of years in the workforce, completion of higher education, and title. How can you reframe what it means to be an expert, and what competencies you value enough to consider expertise meaningful? For example, technological fluency, experience in conflict mediation, high levels of emotional intelligence, ability to link everyday work with social justice—these are things your organization could value. This could change the look, feel, and experience of mentors and mentees alike.


Does your company have an exclusive or inclusive mentoring program? Share your experiences and insights with us

Yejin Lee profile image

Yejin Lee

Yejin Lee is a nonprofit professional and career coach based in New York City. She is most passionate about supporting nonprofits in operationalizing a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) framework, and assisting individuals in thoughtfully identifying and strategically pursuing professional goals. Yejin also loves cooking, eating, annotating TV shows, and hanging out with her husband and sassy shiba inu.

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