Mentoring and Subtle Bias

A while back, I was speaking to an executive about mentoring opportunities for less experienced managers. This executive felt passionate about creating more opportunities for people to learn and grow, particularly women who want to move up in their careers and tend to get less organic coaching. He spoke about a successful program he had seen at has past workplace.

Monthly, executives would pull employee names out of a jar and take that person out to chat. This paired strong performers with access to a diverse set of executives (and potential mentors). People across the organization really looked forwards to the program. Sounds great, right?! As I dug deeper into how it worked from there, this executive casually commented that he’d take male coworkers out for a beer after work and women out for a coffee to talk career and development.

I wasn’t sure why initially it felt a little bit off to me, but later I understood: the difference between the experience based on gender. I imagine this bias can play out in other ways, too. Let’s get real – I like going for beers after work just as much as my male coworkers. Plus there’s a level of candor, access, and bonding that can happen over a drink that rarely happens over a coffee (in my experience). It’s the same with hitting the golf course or catching a game.

Listen, I’m not judging. It comes from a good place of wanting to make sure nobody feels uncomfortable – a female employee, significant others, whatever. As a gay woman in a people-related function, I can totally relate. I am hyper aware of how my friendliness, teasing, and sarcasm are interpreted by both my male and female coworkers. My intent is to be accessible and open; I never want to make someone uncomfortable or wonder if it’s coming from the wrong place.

Having this conversation made me wonder if I’m exerting the same bias and not affording people the same opportunities based on my sensitivity to others’ perceptions. The truth is, I’m not sure but I want to make sure I’m not in the future. So how can we get better? I think it comes down to asking yourself two questions:

  • What are you comfortable doing for everyone?
  • What could other people (regardless of circumstance) be uncomfortable with?

Once you know that, consider offering the same “safe” option to everyone – for example, coffee across the board. Alternatively, offer an option for people to choose between – something you are comfortable with and something you think everyone would be comfortable doing. For example, I could offer to take a less experienced coworker out for a beer or lunch – their choice. Then give of yourself as best you can.

Just remember to be cognizant that you are offering the same opportunities across the board to new potential mentees. As time passes, you’ll likely develop closer relationships with certain people and give more of yourself to them. I’d only encourage you to be vigilant about starting from the same place for all.

 

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