Mentoring: Getting Personal?

Should one worry about confidentiality in the context of a mentoring relationship? Should line managers be one’s mentor? These were amongst the questions posed during the panel discussion in which I participated (along with Lab Director Jim Smith and Anne O’Garra, Head of their Division of Immunoregulation) at last week’s Wikipedia ‘edit-a-thon’ at the National Institute of Medical Research at Mill Hill. This event, the first of six such edit-a-thon’s planned by the MRC, was timed to coincide with Rosalind Franklin’s birthday: she would have been 93 on the day. Her sister Jennifer Glynn, author of a memoir about Franklin, wrote a letter I was asked to read out at the event.

I didn’t participate in the editing session itself, somewhat frustratingly. The aim of these sessions is to train up new editors so that they can continue to make contributions in the future, and to do this by working on entries of female scientists whose current Wikipedia write-ups are paltry. The series follows on from the very successful event hosted at the Royal Society last autumn.  With fellow Occam’s Typewriter blogger Frank Norman, the librarian at Mill Hill who was one of the initiators of this event, I have written a description of the how and why of the occasion for the Guardian Occam’s Corner blog, so here I’ll confine myself to discussing some of the issues raised in the panel discussion. (Frank has also written up more about the edit-a-thon over on his own blog).  My role on the day was to give a talk to highlight some of the important issues women in science may currently face and actions management of an institution might consider to counter these challenges, this talk to act as a lead-in to the subsequent discussion (my slides are also now posted on the MRC website along with some photographs from the day). I was also interviewed about the event for the Cambridge News.

So, to return to mentoring, what really is the role of the mentor and the mentee? My thoughts are based on experience and observation rather than from involvement in any formal scheme, but then I am no particular fan of formal schemes on this front. Although in principle they sound fine, in practice they only work when serendipitously there is a good match between the two partners.  If mentors are simply allocated by senior management there is no reason for this to work out in practice. Talking to an assigned someone who is senior to you and who may have loads of experience but no particular empathy or congeniality may make any problems seem worse rather than better. I have never forgotten the story once told to me of a conversation which went along the lines of the junior party explaining the things that were worrying him, to be greeted with ‘yes, those do sound like problems’ – but no advice on how to handle them from the mentor. This is not a recipe for success.

In the olden days, as it were, when mentoring as such was not a term in use, (some) people used to take others under their wing, nurture them and bring on their careers. This led to the danger of creating an ‘old boys’ club’; although there was no need for it to be so, it often was. But it did mean that the lucky few got nurtured/mentored whilst the unlucky remainder were left out in the cold.  Too often those who got overlooked or were more actively ignored were those who were not junior clones of those at the top. Such a system typically disadvantages women, but also of course many others who – for whatever reason – do not resemble the top guys or are seen as ‘unworthy’ in some way.

So there is a real challenge in devising a system which is able to support and accommodate all, whilst still making sure the pairings work. I have no idea how this particular circle can be squared. Maybe having an assigned mentor is better than having none at all; maybe this can provide a route in to find other individuals ahead of you in your field. I know how fortunate I have been to have had wonderful (male) mentors who advised me early on and who were there for many years thereafter; now, in one case, limited by frailty and the other by 6000 miles (although one never stops needing advice, a point I’ve discussed before). I was fortunate since these mentors were, in the chronologically earlier case my boss/line manager and in the second my head of department and they just took on the roles imperceptibly without being asked and without any question or demur.

Now, in principle and despite my own experience, I don’t think line managers are the right people to be formal mentors. Line managers should do the job automatically (but too often don’t) of nurturing, passing on advice and opportunities and generally promoting your career – just as I found in my own earlier years. But, having someone else who is more removed from your immediate sphere can perhaps give more objective insight and, particularly if relationships are not working out as well as you’d like, they can be a useful external voice to try to assess why things are going awry with your line manager and to help you find coping strategies. They can also advise you when to push because you’re not being given the opportunities you’d like, or whether you’re in fact being unreasonably demanding, a conversation you cannot have possibly have with your line manager.

But, whoever your mentor is, I do not think you should be disclosing confidential material. This particular question arose in the panel discussion in the context of discussing sensitive issues with someone who may also be writing letters of reference for you. This is, of course, another reason for separating out the mentor and supervisor roles. But if there are, for instance, health issues affecting your work currently there should be appropriate HR protocols in place to handle this. If there have been health issues in the past you may want to leave them there unless they become relevant again in the present. I don’t think mentors are people you should pour your soul out to about your turbulent love life, your drinking habits or the more embarrassing parts (and photos) of your past. Keep that information for your mates down the pub and use your mentor to provide facts on career progression and to supply advice about whether you are on the right track for your chosen goals – and what to do if you are not.

One of the volunteer Wikipedia editors also sought advice on how best to continue to mentor those would-be editors he’d been working with on the day. For him the challenge was that he wouldn’t be able to have face to face meetings with them. Does this matter? I suspect that, once having established face-to-face contact and established some rapport, any means of future communication should be viable, be it email, Skype or phone. I sincerely hope he can continue to work with the eager batch of new editors to support them to get more confident about their work in updating Wikipedia entries, be it about women scientists or anything else.

Finally I would like to mention the comment from the floor – literally, as the room was so packed there were many sitting on the carpet – about how to ‘stand up’ for yourself as a mother. This speaker said forcefully and to loud applause, how she had pointed out in an interview that her skills as a mother were highly relevant to her work as a scientific leader. For instance, she was used to organising a team (to make sure her children were always cared for), could lead this team to good effect and so on. This is advice that parents of small children who are struggling to feel confident about what they have to offer a potential employer should keep in mind. Think positively about all those transferable skills you are acquiring on the side and work out how to sell them constructively. Maybe that was the most important point to come out of the whole discussion.

Added 31-7-13 Links to the slides for my talk and Jennifer Glynn’s letter uploaded to the MRC website have now been added, as has a link to the Cambridge News article about the edit-a-thon published on 30-7-13.



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4 Responses to Mentoring: Getting Personal?

  1. Thanks for writing! Mentoring is an invaluable relationship for both the mentor and the mentee. I do agree that there needs to be some degree of understanding outside of the mentoring commitment, meaning that assigning mentors to people isn’t always constructive.

  2. Joanne Kamens says:

    your blog makes some great points about mentoring…but leaves out the best type of mentor/mentee pairing or grouping which is with someone that doesn’t work with you at all. This type of mentoring relationship allows for real openness and discussion of confidential information which can be crucial to real change and growth.

    I urge all people to seek a mentor out of their work sphere. At the same time, it is very beneficial to find mentor-sponsors at work. Women are generally not as good at this as men for some reason–they see it as “cheating” somehow. But having sponsors who not only guide you, but help support your growth and advocate for you is the real leg up that can make the difference at success.

  3. Pingback: Revitalising Wikipedia coverage of women scientists | Wikimedia UK Blog

  4. Many of our managers have been developing coaching and mentoring as a contracted practice with their coachees/mentees. We see coaching skills as underpinning mentoring and based on trust in confidentiality and professional ethics. At its best, coaching and mentoring is adding value to another person’s life where they face a challenge or opportunity. It enables the coachee/mentee to explore and understand context, gain clarity, identify possibilities and, with greater self-awareness, take responsibility for actions.

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