Formal Mentoring: A Way Around the Barriers of Bias

Julie Shenkman
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Sexism, racism, blatant discrimination—certainly each of these can be a factor in keeping women and emerging groups from advancing in the workplace. More often, however, the reason is more subtle and, because it is subtle, it is harder to diagnose and difficult to cure. That reason is the subtle biases that cause even the most well-meaning of us to exclude diverse groups from our informal workplace networks. Although this exclusion, and its accompanying bias, may be as “gentle” as a hesitation to ask a woman to a business lunch because “All women feel more comfortable chatting with female friends during their down time,” the effects of that exclusion are as virulent as if the thought were, “Women don’t really belong at high levels in the workplace; there’s no point in asking her along.” In both cases, she is excluded from the informal network within which business decisions are made, information imparted, and relationships built. Although, as I argue in my book Making Diversity Work: Seven Steps for Defeating Bias in the Workplace, the ultimate answer to this exclusion lies in the diminishing of bias. In the meantime, there is available to us a more immediate solution: formal mentoring programs. Programs such as these are wide spread within corporate America and have generally met with substantial success. Among the characteristics of those programs that are most successful are: The mentor has volunteered for the position. The mentor and protégée are of different backgrounds. In other words, a male mentors a woman or a white female executive mentors a black manager. There are, of course, some situations in which same-gender and same-culture partnerships are appropriate, but, in general, diversity within the team generates the greatest amount of learning. Both mentor and protégée are given formal pre-program training on the techniques and expectations of the mentoring process. The learning is a two-way process in which the protégée teaches the mentor as much about her point-of-view and culture as the other way around. In all cases, formal programs should be just that--formal. Partner meetings should be as regular as possible and partners required to provide frequent updates on their progress. It is this regularity that keeps the energy of the partnership building and gradually creates the kind of natural connection that happens spontaneously in more informal relationships. Sondra Thiederman is a speaker and author on diversity, bias-reduction, and cross-cultural issues. She is the author of Making Diversity Work: Seven Steps for Defeating Bias in the Workplace (Chicago: Dearborn Press, 2003) which is available at her web site or at She can be contacted at: Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D. Cross-Cultural Communications 4585 48th Street San Diego, CA 92115 Phones: 619-583-4478 / 800-858-4478 Fax: 619-583-0304 / Copyright Cross-Cultural Communications. Should you wish to re-print this article, you may do so as long as long as the current copyright statement and all contact information is included.

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