The dark side of mentoring and sponsorship for women

This week for #iwd2019 I have been extolling the benefits of how useful mentoring and sponsorship are for women’s careers. But actually is it always helpful? Mentors and sponsors can sometimes cause harm in supporting women and also negatively impact gender equity and equality. So what can go wrong?

1. The Guru mentor or sponsor

Some mentors and sponsors know everything, or think they do — they don’t! However, positioning themself as an ‘all knowing guru’, who can provide all the wisdom and knowledge required, creates more satisfaction and ego stroking for them. In addition, it makes the woman feel even more inadequate if she doesn’t agree with her mentor or sponsor and wants to challenge them. Unfortunately many senior, successful men and women don’t want to be challenged in life, particularly by a younger and more junior woman.

2. Being positioned as the hero or rescuer in the relationship

Jennifer de Vries’ research shows that gendered expectations and choices position men as powerful and effective champions while undermining the effectiveness of the woman. This study describes how positioning male allies and mentors as heroic rescuers, can actually strengthen the gendered status quo, inadvertently reinforcing male positional power while showing women as unsuitable for serious leadership roles.

This scenario also makes me reflect on Karpman’s Drama Triangle. The “victim, rescuer, and persecutor” refer to roles people unconsciously play, or try to manipulate other people to play. In mentoring or sponsoring, if someone plays the rescuer role, it can tip the woman to becoming the victim, gradually eroding her capacity to solve problems and make decisions on her own. Rescuers need victims to help and often can’t allow the victim to succeed or get better. They can use guilt to keep their victims dependent. Rescuers are frequently harried, overworked, tired, caught in a martyr style while resentment festers underneath.

Does this sound familiar? What if the rescuer moves into persecutor? Persecutors criticize and blame the victim, set strict limits, can be controlling, rigid, authoritative, angry and unpleasant. They keep the victim feeling oppressed through threats and bullying. Again this can happen in some relationships and not just ones where the mentor or sponsor is male – remember Queen Bee Syndrome. Often this oppression occurs without the woman realising just how controlling their mentor or sponsor has become.

3. Cloning in mentoring and sponsorship

A bit like Dolly the Sheep! Many mentors are inclined to clone themselves in their mentees. So often unconsciously, they push their mentees to pursue career trajectories and make life or career decisions that mirror their own.

Both male and female mentors and sponsors can fall prey to this. W. Brad Johnson and David G. Smith in their HBR article feel male mentors have more difficulty with this:

‘However, it can be harder for male mentors to overcome because of the way men and women are socialized to listen, and the ways that women are (generally) more relationship-oriented, while men are (again, generally) more task-oriented. To avoid this instinctual cloning tendency, men have to work hard at really listening to the women they mentor, focusing on the relationship more than the specific task being discussed.’

4. Dependency and disempowerment

This can be a by-product of working with a ‘hero’. Woman (and men) should never get so attached to their mentor or sponsor that they can’t make a decision without checking in with them. My colleague David Clutterbuck calls this the ‘cling on’ mentality and it needs to be discouraged! Over-dependence can become a real issue and disempower the woman so she is in a worse position than when she began the mentoring or sponsorship relationship!

Tips for healthy mentoring and sponsorship

The most effective relationships are where the mentors or sponsors:

  • Share the power (this is more difficult in sponsorship, but it is possible to park the power in the conversation, but use it outside the meeting!)
  • Feel comfortable giving specific feedback, treating men and women in the same way, avoiding stereotypes about how women behave or think
  • Talk about career advancement and compensation, as well as work-life balance, confidence and fears, a balanced and holistic portfolio of topics, depending on the woman’s needs
  • Have relationship and meeting structure
  • Are affirming! Offering both perceptual affirmation (supporting the woman in their self-vision) and behavioural affirmation (helping women to engage in behaviours aligned with their ideal selves).

It is so important to ensure your mentors and sponsors understand what ‘second generation bias’ is – these are behaviours demonstrated in organisations, which flow from basic assumptions about working life or about the qualities required to succeed in leadership, which reflect masculine values and men’s life situations. Challenge them to rise above it and to consider what impact bad mentoring and sponsoring can create.

Regular supervision and support will also provide that ethical check in to ensure no harm is being done and raise the mentors and sponsors awareness of their relationship dynamics.

This article has just skimmed the surface of some of the ‘darker’ aspects of mentoring and sponsorship relationship dynamics. Perhaps another time I will write about: jealousy, undermining, betrayal, abandonment and expecting sexual favours! All issues I have witnessed or experienced in my career.

Don’t forget if any of these ideas are of interest and you want to expand on them, do come and have a chat.

P.S. I want to dedicate this blog to those great mentors from the NHS England Conference yesterday who participated so enthusiastically in my mentoring workshop and who encouraged me to write this!

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