Hey, guys! Did you (or do you) have “mentors”?

Yesterday, I heard heard a discussion on the radio about the apparently shocking news that, according to LinkedIn, 19 percent of women (nearly one out of every five!) have never had a workplace mentor.

Which, of course, means that more than 80 percent have had a mentor.

I found myself groping for a place to grab ahold of that and decide whether it meant anything at all. I mean, that sounded to me like a lot of women having mentors. How, for instance, does it compare to guys? I didn’t hear any number relating to that, but Nicole Williams of LinkedIn said this:

we found two different surveys that confirmed that, in fact, men are more likely to get workplace guidance than women. They’re more likely to have a mentor. They’re more likely to be asked to be a mentor. They’re more likely to have asked someone to be a mentor.

Yeah, OK, but I’d sort of like to see those surveys.

Because… and I may be way off-base here… I always thought that mentoring was kind of a, well, a chick thing. In my worklife, I’ve mostly only heard women even talking about it. And I’ve heard them talk about it a lot, and to place great importance on it. And I’ve seen female executives go out of their way to act as a mentor to women below them, and to encourage those women to turn about and do the same for another person of the female persuasion. And I chalked that up to women being more into doing things collaboratively, and helping each other out, while guys tend to be antisocial jerks who wouldn’t go out of their way to help another guy (a competitor!) if their lives depended on it. Perhaps I exaggerate a bit, but those are the trends I have noticed, anecdotally speaking.

There’s a feminist assumption underlying all the “mentor” talk I hear from women that goes like this: Guys have their Old Boy Network, so we have to come up with these constructs to counteract that. And so they do. And it’s very overt: Will you be my mentor? Yes, I will. Then there are meetings, and lectures, and goals set, etc.

But maybe guys are “mentoring” (another one of those maddening cases of turning a noun into a verb) each other like crazy without even knowing it, or at least without calling it that.

So I thought back, have I ever had a mentor? Not overtly, to the best of my knowledge. I was regularly encouraged by my boss at The Jackson (Tenn.) Sun, right out of college. I can think of two things in particular Reid Ashe said to me. Once he said, “You’re a superstar around here — you know that, don’t you?” Which was kind of a boost. And when I applied to replace John Parish as our state political writer in 1979, and didn’t get it, he created a new position for me (so I wouldn’t quit) in which I worked on special reporting assignments that I pretty much chose myself. Which was cool. The next year, he promoted me to be the editor over all the paper’s news reporters. And one time after that, when I wanted to try some experimental program or other, he told me I didn’t have to ask: “You have the authority to do anything you want to do — as long as you do the right thing.” Some would have found that intimidating, because of the implication that you’d better not foul up (in the sense of being given enough rope to hang yourself), but I was a pretty cocky kid, and I didn’t think anything I wanted to do could possibly be wrong, so I found it empowering. To use another one of those touchy-feely H.R. words.

So there’s no doubt he did a lot go encourage me early in my career. But was that being a mentor — or just having a boss who encouraged me and promoted me (which I don’t think is quite the same thing)? I don’t know. We didn’t call it that. We didn’t have regular meetings. He didn’t give me lectures, or goals. He was more like, “Keep up the good work!” Which I certainly found encouraging. But there was no formal relationship.

Anyway, I just got to wondering: How many of y’all, male and female, have had people you would call “mentors”?

16 thoughts on “Hey, guys! Did you (or do you) have “mentors”?

  1. `Kathryn Fenner

    I never got up the nerve to actually ask someone to be my mentor, but I did charm several senior partners into looking out for me and gladly absorbed all advice that came my way. Since I couldn’t join in the guys’ basketball game like the guy who started at the exact time in the exact department as I, nor can I play any sport requiring hand-to-eye coordination, I “sold what I got.” One of these guys recommended me to the boss who subsequently became my brother-in-law, so I guess that worked out okay.

    Women of my generation were advised by the first wave of professional women 10-20 years older than us that we should dress soberly, drop the pitch of our voice, always be “team players”–as if the male lawyers were actually team players–I think the better advice would have been “try to look like a team player while actually driving your own bus.”
    I resent the tone of your “feminist assumption”–it was an assumption made by pretty much all professional women–who were not necessarily members of NOW. I think it would be more accurately described as “reality.”

    I have certainly benefited from assists from men throughout, as well as many fewer women. Col. Jack Van Loan (!) has made it a personal mission to get more women into Rotary and encouraged my candidacy.I think it is a fair cop that most women have not been as helpful to other women as they ought to have been.

  2. Brad

    Kathryn, that is by definition a feminist idea, regardless of who may hold it. That assumption is pretty key to much of feminist thought. Hence the modifier.

  3. Wes Wolfe

    Brad Senkiw and Adam Beam were my “mentors” in college, but that was by default, since they were my superiors. However, I doubt I’d ever actively seek out the sort of hand-holding guidance described.

  4. `Kathryn Fenner

    I guess I inferred a sneer. Sorry. Professor Fenner’s first rule of email applies. “You can’t read tone in an email.”

    Yeah, Burl. I drive a Prius, which I learned only today from Steven requires castration. I throw/run/cry like a girl. I readily concede that I lack the aspects of the male anatomy that seem so important in this modern world. Please excuse me while I go back to my tatting.;)

  5. SusanG

    I am in a field that, at least when I started, was pretty much dominated by men (I started as a C and assembly language programmer), so I don’t know much about how women mentor in the workplace, but I had some bosses (all men) that were very encouraging and gave me a lot of room to do what I was interested in, which I’ve always appreciated. I was pretty cocky, too, and also appreciate that they didn’t consider that a negative (or at least they were able to ignore it).

  6. Steven Davis

    “antisocial jerks who wouldn’t go out of their way to help another guy (a competitor!) if their lives depended on it”

    Did you copy that from my bio page?

  7. Norm Ivey

    There have always people I could go to for advice, but I’ve never had an official mentor. Unless you count being called to your principal’s office for a “conference” mentoring.

  8. Herb Brasher

    All I can say that in the Christian ministry world, ‘mentor’ is not just the ‘good ol’ boy’ network, but a distinctive role. It’s one of the going terms–a Schlagwort, as they say in German.

    Now it has moved on even further to ‘coaching.’ I guess ‘mentoring’ is both relational, and to some degree voluntary accountability, while coaching has got more of the ‘hands-on’ aspect. One can pay a lot of money to get professional coaching these days, I would guess in a variety of fields, but in mine–well there are any number of firms that offer coaching to non-profit organizational leadership.

    I never had either one. I had plenty of bosses over me, but pretty much had to find my own way, which I guess is what you’re referring to here.

    To venture a guess, modern life is becoming more compartmentalized and demanding–what was acceptable a generation ago is generally not up to standard today, hence a greater emphasis on mentors. But they would have been helpful even back then.

    I did have baseball coaches; I was just glad they let me play. Sometimes.

  9. Rose

    Hmmmm. I’ve been a mentor for both male and female new employees and student employees. We don’t have a formal mentor program or whatever you want to call it, but I’ve provided professional guidance and advice on navigating our institutional bureaucracy, making contacts, joining professional organizations, etc. I don’t see how that’s a gender thing. It’s making sure employees succeed, whether they are regular staff or students.

  10. Herb Brasher

    Actually mentoring, as I’ve observed it (not experienced), can be a very positive thing, despite Steven’s comments. Coaching goes one step further, though, and helps the individual to come up with what they need to be doing, rather than telling them–and then helping them to develop, and keep to, a plan of action.

    Very helpful, I think, for those who can afford it, or have access to, a good coach. The rest of us mortals have to find our way, especially in the current financial bare-essentials environment for non-profits.

  11. bud

    He was an F-16 pilot who was shot down over North Vietnam.

    Not sure what that means. We weren’t flying F-16 during American involvement in Vietnam. That plane didn’t go into service until 1978. Of course Mr. Van Loan could have been a Vietnam vet who flew F-16s later on. Ok so this is a nitpik. But somehow it piques my curiosity a bit about what Jack was piloting when he was shot down.

  12. Cotton Boll Conspiracy

    I never had a mentor, but I always chalked that up to being in journalism or other writing fields, where most folks were doing their own thing (reporting, editing, etc.), rather than working on a cohesive project, like, say, one might at a bank or other corporation.

    Or it could have been that I was simply anti-social.


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