The mentoring cards are already stacked against women, but it’s even more difficult for women of color. Here are some tips for finding the right mentorship match, from advocates who know.
The contributing factors behind the gender pay gap are sundry and depressing, but they pretty much all have one thing in common: Resistance to women acquiring greater economic and professional influence is systemic. And one of the ways this plays out is via women having less access to mentorships than men.
According to a 2011 LinkedIn survey of nearly 1,000 women in the US, 82 percent agreed that having a mentor is important to the trajectory of your career. And yet one in five women never had access to a mentor, with over half of those respondents reporting that they were never able to find someone appropriate. “Appropriate” is a qualifier that can be broad in its interpretation, yes, but is also heavy with meaning for women, especially in the wake of the #TimesUp movement.
And as with the gender pay gap, in which black and Latina women make significantly less than their white female counterparts, women of color have it tougher—in no small part because they see less representation in the leadership roles generally sought out for mentorship.
According to statistics from the American Center for Progress, women of color occupy only 11.9 percent of managerial positions and 3.2 percent of board seats in Fortune 500companies, despite comprising 36.3 percent of the US population.
“If you can’t see other successful women who look like you, it’s harder to relate and design a path of your own,” says Shaunah Zimmerman, co-founder of Women Who Create, a community platform dedicated to fostering mentorship opportunities for women of color in the advertising industry.
Sherry Sims, founder of the Black Career Women’s Network, notes that amongst her clients, the most common impediment she’s observed in women of color finding mentors is not knowing how to ask for support or where to look:
“Eighty percent of my clients prefer to be mentored by another African American woman that is currently working a position they aspire to be in,” she says. “Most often these women desire to be in a C-suite position, and seek mentors currently in theses roles. Unfortunately, they have limited access to these women due to a lack of representation in those roles.”
But organizations like hers, WWC, and Catalyst are working to change things by providing resources and facilitating conversation around what will help women of color secure meaningful mentorships.
While traditional thinking would see you seeking out the most high-profile mentor you can find, Zimmerman suggests looking at the people around you to start, rather than seeking out the big shots right out of the gate.
“… the mentors women are finding are very high level, and it’s hard to foster a relationship when 100 other people are also competing to get face time with them,” Zimmerman says.
She recommends taking a deeper, but broader, look at your options: “Someone who’s about to hit mid-level can be a great mentor. Even though they may not have [as much experience as a senior or executive-level employee], they may still have very powerful connections. If you really have a meaningful relationship with this mentor, it can lead to the senior level introductions you want.”
A mentorship is absolutely a professional relationship, but the nature of the relationship can potentially make for some vulnerable, personal moments as you work through your concerns and struggles. That’s why it’s imperative to find someone you trust and get along with in a broader context:
“You may not click with everyone that you have your eye on for mentoring, and that’s OK,” Zimmerman says. “Mentorship is a relationship at the end of the day, and it has to be organic. Don’t compromise who you are; there are plenty of people who will see how bomb AF you are.”
Sims adds that this very human relationship is a two-way street: “Offer your support to them as well,” she says. It might be the case that the mentee, who is typically younger, may know a thing or two about, say, social media trends that the mentor may not necessarily be privy to.”
Your time is valuable, and so is theirs; going through the process of finding and securing a mentor will all be for naught if you’re not serious about absorbing the knowledge they’re offering and continuing to push yourself to learn over a longer time span.
“Meet up with them, pick their brain, ask them about their successes and failures, and how you can make the right moves to excel in your career,” Zimmerman says.
Sims adds that it’s necessary to be “specific and clear about what you would like to accomplish in the relationship.” Going in knowing exactly what you want out of a mentorship will wind up saving you valuable time and resources.
“What really makes for an impactful relationship is to make the environment more intimate,” says Zimmerman. “Then, the intimidation goes out the door. You get to have a more personable conversation with a mentor, who actually is a human at the end of the day, and this gives the mentee a chance to be their authentic selves.”
To that end, she adds that it’s important to thank them. “Realize that these individuals are giving their time to you to help you learn and grow. Be grateful, be humble, and be open to their feedback.”