Here’s What We Really Need to Focus on When We Talk About Female Mentorship

Here’s What We Really Need to Focus on When We Talk About Female Mentorship

When Sheryl Sandberg’s monumental book Lean In was first published almost three years ago, she made waves not just for her bold message, but also for what many readers saw as a rejection of mentorship.

In the time since her book hit shelves, female mentorship has been a hot topic. We’ve fought over what to call it (sponsorship? advisorship?), whether or not it actually benefits us ladies, and whether or not it’s our responsibility to help other women, but one thing is certain: women need mentors. Research shows, in staggering numbers, the important influence mentors have on girls and women.

Mentorship is critical for all young people, who do best when they have adults they feel they can look up to as role models, be it in their extracurricular activities, fields of academic interests, or as they navigate their teenage years. Having at least one trusted, older advisor figure (or, even better, an entire support network) helps teens deal healthily with social instability, academic pressures, family tensions, and the stresses of growing up. It’s undeniably important for teens — but especially important for girls and young women.

Young women who choose to pursue traditionally male-dominated fields, especially STEM careers, are significantly likelier to stick with their passion and to succeed in their industry than their counterparts who feel they are going it entirely alone. Research conducted by the Center For Research on Girls posits that a “dearth of STEM role models harms girls [and] reinforces negative stereotypes held by girls about STEM fields.” Their study goes on to explain that girls who have a close relationship with a mentor in their field feel there’s a place for them in the industry and can speak candidly with an older, more experienced colleague who might be able to offer advice on navigating the workplace. Girls and young women who don’t have these relationships are more likely to change majors in college or to leave STEM-based jobs in pursuit of a different, less male-heavy path, CRG’s research explains.

Girls do better, we’ve learned, when they see other women whose footsteps they feel they can follow in. It makes sense: it’s difficult for any of us to picture ourselves forging a path that feels completely uncharted, and we could all use a little inspiration and advice along the way, but it actually goes deeper than wanting someone to reach out to when times are tough.

It boils down to the same impetus that’s driving the fight to diversify the kinds of narratives we’re exposed to on screen, on the page, and on the stage; as a society, we’re finally coming to understand that it’s important for young people to see themselves represented, no matter who they are.

Just like girls of all body-types and abilities and races benefit from having access to dolls who look like them, they need – and have a right to – access to adults who are succeeding (or even trying) in the fields they want to pursue.

Anna Maria Chaves, Girl Scouts for the USA’s CEO, said in a keynote address at the Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network Summit that older women “have an obligation to demonstrate the power of [their] voice and the value of [their] perspective, by serving as pioneers and role models for today’s young girls.” While it’s difficult to get at the root of what we owe each other (and we’ve seen what chaos can ensue from spouting a “special place in hell for women who don’t help other women” mentality), no girls grow up to be successful women without some help.

So, what do we owe each other? The opportunity to connect.

Ultimately, there’s only so much a role model or mentor can offer, and, all too often, young women reach out as a means of networking as part of a scramble for a summer job or the perfect internship. What we miss when we look only to boost our LinkedIn pages or meet the person who will pass our resume along is something so much more important than any job — it’s the chance to listen to each other, to ask our questions, to hear a candid and honest take on what it’s like to be five or 10 or 15 years ahead of where we stand right now.

We’re all newcomers at some point—most likely, many times over—and I’m worried we’ve gotten so busy focusing on leaning in as hard as we can that we’re missing the chance to build relationships along the way. In competitive fields, especially in ones that aren’t traditionally welcoming to women, it’s easy to see stopping to lend a hand or give advice as an unwise detour along the fast track to success. It’s so difficult to earn a spot at the coveted meeting, for instance, so it’s definitely not worth inviting the new intern along.

This mindset—that we all have to put blinders on and, alone, chug forward in a race to the top—is hurting all of us. None of us get where we want without asking for a little help along the way, and we’re hurting each other by isolating ourselves and robbing each other of safe spaces to ask questions. We’re capable of such exciting and important connections if we just decide to make a little more room for each other.

Renowned Broadway composer/writer duo Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, in their famed Fun Home Tony acceptance speech, hit the proverbial nail on the head. “For girls,” Tesori said, “you have to see it to be it.”

We deserve, no matter who we are or where we come from, the chance not only to see what we want to be, but to know other women who are where we want to be and who can help shape our understanding of who we want to become.


Cover image courtesy of Shutterstock.