In the centuries since Odysseus entrusted his son Telemachus to Athena, biographical, literary, and historical accounts have cemented the concept of mentorship into our collective consciousness. Early foundational research characterised mentors as individuals who help us transition through different phases of our lives. Chief among these phases is the progression from adolescence to adulthood, during which we “imagine exciting possibilities for [our lives] and [struggle] to attain the ‘I am’ feeling in this dreamed-of self and world” (Levinson 93). Previous research suggests that mentoring can positively impact a range of developmental outcomes including emotional/behavioural resiliency, academic attainment, career advancement, and organisational productivity (DuBois et al. 57-91; Eby et al. 441-76; Merriam 161-73). The growth of formal mentoring programs, such as Big Brothers-Big Sisters, has further strengthened our belief in the value of mentoring in personal, academic and career contexts (Eby et al. 441-76).
In recent years, claims of mentorship uptake have become widespread, even ubiquitous, ranging from codified components of organisational mandates to casual bragging rights in coffee shop conversations (Eby et al. 441-76). Is this a sign that mentorship has become indispensable to personal and professional development, or is mentorship simply in vogue? In this paper, we examine uses of, and corresponding meanings attached to, mentorship. Specifically, we compare popular news portrayals of mentoring with meanings ascribed to mentoring relationships by academics who are part of formal mentoring programs.
We searched for articles published in the New York Times between July and December 2015. Search terms used included: mentor, mentors, mentoring or mentorship. This U.S. national newspaper was chosen for its broad focus, and large online readership. It is among the most widely read online newspapers worldwide (World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers). Our search generated 536 articles. We conducted a qualitative thematic contentan alysis to explore the nature, scope, and importance of mentorship, as depicted in these media accounts. We compared media themes identified through this analysis with those generated through in-depth interviews previously conducted with 23 academic faculty in mentoring programs at the University of Calgary (Canada). Data were extracted by two authors, and discrepancies in interpretation were resolved through discussion with a third author.
The Many Faces of Mentorship
In both interviews and New York Times (NYT) accounts, mentorship is portrayed as part of the “fabric” of contemporary culture, and is often viewed as essential to career advancement. As one academic we interviewed commented: “You know the worst feeling in the world [as a new employee] is...to feel like you’re floundering and you don’t know where to turn.” In 322 NYT articles, mentorship was linked to professional successes across a variety of disciplines, with CEOs, and popular culture icons, such as rap artists and sports figures, citing mentorship as central to their achievements. Mentorship had a particularly strong presence in the arts (109 articles), sports (62 articles) business (57 articles), politics (36 articles), medicine (26 articles), and law (21 articles).
In the NYT, mentorship was also a factor in student achievement and social justice issues including psychosocial and career support for refugees and youth from low socioeconomic backgrounds; counteracting youth radicalisation; and addressing gender inequality in the workplace. In short, mentorship appears to have been taken up as a panacea for a variety of social and economic ills.
Mentor Identities and Roles
While mentors in academia were supervisors or colleagues, NYT articles portrayed mentors more broadly, as family members, employers, friends and peers. Mentoring relationships typically begin with a connection which often manifests as shared experiences or goals (Merriam). One academic interviewee described mentorship in these terms: “There’s something there that you both really respect and value.” In many NYT accounts, the connection between mentors and mentees was similarly emphasized. As a professional athlete noted: “To me, it's not about collecting [mentors]...It's if the person means something to me...played some type of role in my life” (Shpigel SP.1).
While most mentoring relationships develop organically, others are created through formal programs. In the NYT, 33 articles described formal programs to support career/skills development in the arts, business, and sports, and behaviour change in at-risk youth. Although many such programs relied on volunteers, we noted instances in professional sports and business where individuals were hired to provide mentorship. We also saw evidence to suggest that formal programs may be viewed as a quick fix, or palatable alternative, to more costly, or long-term organisational or societal change. For instance, one article on operational challenges at a law firm noted: “The firm's leadership...didn't want to be told that they needed to overhaul their entire organizational philosophy.... They wanted to be told that the firm's problem was work-family conflict for women, a narrative that would allow them to adopt a set of policies specifically aimed at helping women work part time, or be mentored” (Slaughter SR.1).
Mutuality of the Relationship
Effective mentoring occurs when both mentors and mentees value these relationships. As one academic interviewee noted: “[My mentor] asked me for advice on certain things about where they’re going right career wise... I think that’s allowed us to have a stronger sort of mentoring relationship”. Some NYT portrayals of mentorship also suggested rich, reciprocal relationships. A dancer with a ballet company described her mentor:
She doesn't talk at you. She talks with you. I've never thought about dancing as much as I've thought about it working with her. I feel like as a ballerina, you smile and nod and you take the beating. This is more collaborative. In school, I was always waiting to find a professor that I would bond with and who would mentor me. All I had to do was walk over to Barnard, get into the studio, and there she was. I found Twyla. Or she found me. (Kourlas AR.7)
The mutuality of the mentorship evident in this dancer’s recollection is echoed in a NYT account of the role of fashion models in mentoring colleagues: “They were...mentors and connectors and facilitators, motivated...by the joy of discovering talent and creating beauty” (Trebay D.8). Yet in other media accounts, mentorship appeared unidirectional, almost one-dimensional: “Judge Forrest noted in court that he had been seen as a mentor for young people” (Moynihan A.21). Here, the focus seemed to be on the benefits, or status, accrued by the mentor.
Importance of the Relationship
Academic interviewees viewed mentors as sources of knowledge, guidance, feedback, and sponsorship. They believed mentorship had profoundly impacted their careers and that “finding a mentor can be one of the most important things” anyone could do. In the NYT portrayals, mentors were also recognized for the significant, often lasting, impact they had on the lives of their mentees. A choreographer said “the lessons she learned from her former mentor still inspire her — ‘he sits on my shoulder’” (Gold CT 11). A successful CEO of a software firm recollected how mentors enabled him to develop professional confidence: “They would have me facilitate meetings with clients early on in my career. It helped build up this reservoir of confidence” (Bryant, Candid Questions BU.2).
Other accounts in academic interviews and NYT highlighted how defining moments in even short-term mentoring relationships can provoke fundamental and lasting changes in attitudes and behaviours. One interviewee who recently experienced a career change said she derived comfort from connecting with a mentor who had experienced a similar transition: “oh there’s somebody [who] talks my language...there is a place for me.” As a CEO in the NYT recalled: “An early mentor of mine said something to me when I was going to a new job: ‘Don't worry. It's just another dog and pony show.’ That really stayed with me” (Bryant, Devil’s Advocate BU.2). A writer quoted in a NYT article also recounted how a chance encounter with a mentor changed the course of his career: “She said... that my problem was not having career direction. ‘You should become a teacher,’ she said. It was an unusual thing to hear, since that subject had never come up in our conversations. But I was truly desperate, ready to hear something different...In an indirect way, my life had changed because of that drink (DeMarco ST.6).
Mentorship was also celebrated in the NYT in the form of 116 obituary notices as a means of honouring and immortalising a life well lived. The mentoring role individuals had played in life was highlighted alongside those of child, parent, grandparent and spouse.
Metaphor and Archetype
Metaphors imbue language with imagery that evokes emotions, sensations, and memories in ways that other forms of speech or writing cannot, thus enabling us communicate complex ideas or beliefs. Academic interviewees invoked various metaphors to illustrate mentorship experiences. One interviewee spoke of the “blossoming” relationship while another commented on the power of the mentoring experience to “lift your world”. In the NYT we identified only one instance of the use of metaphor. A CEO of a non-profit organisation explained her mentoring philosophy as follows: “One of my mentors early on talked about the need for a leader to be a ‘certain trumpet’. It comes from Corinthians, and it's a very good visualization -- if the trumpet isn't clear, who's going to follow you?” (Bryant, Zigzag BU.2).
By comparison, we noted numerous instances in the NYT wherein mentors were present as characters, or archetypes, in film, performing arts, and television. Archetypes exhibit attributes, or convey meanings, that are instinctively understood by those who share common cultural, societal, or racial experiences (Lane 232) For example, a NYT film review of The Assassin states that “the title character [is] trained in her deadly vocation by a fierce, soft-spoken mentor” (Scott C.4). Such characterisations rely on audiences’ understanding of the inherentfunction of the mentor role, and, like metaphors, can help to convey that which is compelling or complex.
Intentionality and Trust
In interviews, academics spoke of the time and trust required to develop mentoring relationships. One noted “It may take a bit of an effort... You don’t get to know a person very well just meeting three times during the year”. Another spoke of trust and comfort as defining these relationships: “You just open up. You feel immediately comfortable”. We also found evidence of trust and intentionality in NYT accounts of these relationships. Mentees were often portrayed as seeking out and relying on mentorship. A junior teacher stated that “she would lean on mentors at her new school. You are not on that island all alone” (Rich A1). In contrast, there were few explicit accounts of intentionality and reflection on the part of a mentor. In one instance, a police officer who participated in a mentorship program for street kids mused “it's not about the talent. It was just about the interaction”. In another, an actor described her mentoring experiences as follows: “You have to know when to give advice and when to just be quiet and listen...no matter how much you tell someone how it goes, no one really wants to listen. Their dreams are much bigger than whatever fear or whatever obstacle you say may be in their path” (Syme C.5).
Many NYT articles present career mentoring as a role that can be assumed by anyone with requisite knowledge or experience. Indeed, some accounts of mentorship arguably more closely resembled role model relationships, wherein individuals are admired, typically from afar, and emulated by those who aspire to similar accomplishments. Here, there was little, if any, apparent awareness of the complexity or potential impact of these relationships. Rather, we observed a casualness, an almost striking superficiality, in some NYT accounts of mentoring relationships. Examples ranged from references to “sartorial mentors” (Pappu D1) to a professional coach who shared: “After being told by a mentor that her scowl was ‘setting her back’ at work, [she] began taking pictures of her face so she could try to look more cheerful” (Bennett ST.1).
Trust, an essential component of mentorship, can wither when mentors occupy dual roles, such as that of mentor and supervisor, or engage in mentoring as a means of furthering their own interests. While some academic interviewees were mentored by past and current supervisors, none reported any instance of role conflict. However in the NYT, we identified multiple instances where mentorship programs intentionally, or unintentionally, inspired divided loyalties. At one academic institution, peer mentors were “encouraged to befriend and offer mentorship to the students on their floors, yet were designated ‘mandatory reporters’ of any incident that may violate the school policy” (Rosman ST.1). In another media story, government employees in a phased-retirement program received monetary incentives to mentor colleagues: “Federal workers who take phased retirement work 20 hours a week and agree to mentor other workers. During that time, they receive half their pay and half their retirement annuity payout. When workers retire completely, their annuities will include an increase to account for the part-time service” (Hannon B.1). More extreme depictions of conflict of interest were evident in other NYT reports of mentors and mentees competing for job promotions, and mentees accusing mentors of sexual harassment and rape; such examples underscore potential for abuse of trust in these relationships.
Our exploration of mentorship in the NYT suggests mentorship is embedded in our culture, and is a means by which we develop competencies required to integrate into, and function within, society. Whereas, traditionally, mentorship was an informal relationship that developed over time, we now see a wider array of mentorship models, including formal career and youth programs aimed at increasing access to mentorship, and mentor-for-hire arrangements in business and professional sports. Such formal programs can offer redress to those who lack informal mentorship opportunities, and increased initiatives of this sort are welcome.
Although standards of reporting in news media surely account for some of the lack of detail in many NYT reports of mentorship, such brevity may also suggest that, while mentoring continues to grow in popularity, we may have compromised substance for availability. Considerations of the training, time, attention, and trust required of these relationships may have been short-changed, and the tendency we observed in the NYT to conflate role modeling and mentorship may contribute to depictions of mentorship as a quick fix, or ‘mentorship light’.
Although mentorship continues to be lauded as a means of promoting personal and professional development, not all mentoring may be of similar quality, and not everyone has comparable access to these relationships. While we continue to honour the promise of mentorship, as with all things worth having, effective mentorship requires effort. This effort comes in the form of preparation, commitment or intentionality, and the development of bonds of trust within these relationships. In short, overuse of, over-reference to, and misapplication of the mentorship label may serve to dilute the significance and meaning of these relationships. Further, we acknowledge a darker side to mentorship, with the potential for abuses of power.
Although we have reservations regarding some trends towards the casual usage of the mentorship term, we are also heartened by the apparent scope and reach of these relationships. Numerous individuals continue to draw comfort from advice, sponsorship, motivation, support and validation that mentors provide. Indeed, for many, mentorship may represent an essential lifeline to navigating life’s many challenges. We, thus, conclude that mentorship, in its many forms, is here to stay.
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