Demystifying Mentorship

A Guidance Note

“If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” — African Proverb

On September 26th, 2020, the Humanitarian Women’s Network hosted a webinar entitled “Demystifying Mentorship.” The goal of the webinar was to talk about the importance of mentorship among women in the humanitarian sector as well as breaking down the key concepts so that women could feel less awkward, and therefore more empowered, to build these kinds of relationships. We had three speakers: Caroline Rigaud, a professional coach in the humanitarian field; Anika Krstik, Country Director of Plan International and a founding member of HWN; and Nassima Eldy, a Project Officer with Planete Enfants. Anika and Nassima were matched as mentor-mentee on the mentorship app on HWN’s Facebook page. The following guidance note draws on the presentations, guidance, and discussions in the webinar.

What is mentorship?

According to Caroline Rigaud, a professional coach in the humanitarian sector: A mentor is “A sponsor with great professional experience in their client’s field of work. S/he will provide guidance and support for development and growth.” This is slightly different than a coach who “Is an active partner engaged in the development of the potential and skills of his/her coachee.” Mentoring is a “mutual exchange” that is both professional and informal. The goal is to create a safe space to share real challenges of the work environment and learn from another’s experience.
While this note focuses on the role of women mentoring women, mentorship can occur across all genders.

Why is mentorship important?

From the earliest days of HWN, we knew that one of the crucial issues behind the unsafe and unequal working environment in the humanitarian industry was that our workplaces often marginalize and isolate women. While we and many others are working to change the conditions of this system, women need to support each other to survive and thrive in it. One of those important forms of connection is mentorship.
Mentorship has benefits to both the mentee and the mentor. According to our expert, Caroline Rigaud,

A mentee can:
-Learn new skills
-Gain practical advice, encouragement, and support
-Gain a long-term view on her career

A mentor can:
-Improve her management competencies
-Expand her leadership skills
-Reinforce her knowledge of a subject

Both the mentor and mentee can:
-Learn from each other’s experiences
-Gain new ideas and perspectives
-Expand their professional networks
-Gain inspiration and motivation”

Whether you want to learn new skills, expand your network and perspectives, or do your part to smash the patriarchy, mentorship is a vital investment for all of us in the sector.

Who can be a mentor and/or a mentee?

Anyone can be a mentor or mentee! There are always people we can learn from and people who can learn from us. We tend to think of mentorship as a relationship between someone in a ‘junior’ position in an organizational hierarchy and someone in a ‘senior’ position. While that is one kind of relationship, it is not the only one. For example, a woman in her first job in the humanitarian sector can mentor a woman who is looking to get into the sector. A country-director can look for a mentor in someone who has been in that position for longer or at a different kind of organization. A woman at any level can look for a mentor among her peers who has experience or skills that she values. A woman at any level who is looking for a change can look for a mentor who has navigated a career transition to a different part of the sector, or even out of the sector.

In many ways, the organizational hierarchy may be irrelevant to finding the right mentor. Because the system is not fair — for example, women of color and women who began (or continue to) work in their countries of origin are often denied more opportunities for advancement — position in a hierarchy is not necessarily indicative of experience, skills, or knowledge. Don’t let job titles or P-levels distract you: find women whose perspective you value, or who value your viewpoint, and therefore could benefit from your outlook and connect.

How do you start a mentorship relationship?

Some mentorship relationships happen organically: you begin asking a colleague for advice and over time, you begin to consider as a mentor. Other mentorships are more like using a dating app: someone reaches out to someone they don’t know well based on their profile and asks to begin a relationship. This latter kind of relationship can feel awkward, especially if you are the mentee reaching out to a potential mentor. Some people even feel like they’re being “selfish” or “annoying,” particularly when reaching out to women with more organizational responsibilities. Try to remember: no one has gotten through their careers without some degree of advice, guidance, or help. The woman you are reaching out to has been helped by her own mentors somewhere along the line, and you will help others. Reach out, let the woman know who you are, say you are interested in or inspired by her work, and want to learn from her. And, no matter how a mentorship relationship starts, the mentee needs to be clear from the beginning about what she is hoping to learn from the mentor.

The more specific your goals as a mentee, the easier it is for the mentor to help. Do you have an important decision to make about what direction you want your career to go in? Do you need help balancing personal goals with your professional ones? Do you need advice about how to navigate sexism, racism, or other structural problems in the sector? It’s a good idea to start by asking questions. A mentee can ask her new mentor about her career path, how she navigated through certain challenges, in addition to her experiences in a specific kind of position. A mentor can also ask her new mentee about her aspirations, her most impactful challenges, and her experiences in her current position.

How do you have a constructive relationship?

Every mentorship relationship is going to look different and function differently depending on the personalities, working conditions, and life experiences of the people involved. But here are a few guidelines for how to have a constructive relationship between mentor and mentee:
It’s important to have clear mutual expectations. A mentor is not responsible for fixing her mentee’s problems or finding her a new/better job. A mentee is responsible for putting in the work of self-change and self-advocacy.

Both need to be committed to listening to, learning from, and respecting each other. Mutual expectations also include having clear and respectful time commitments. An hour meeting once a month is a good standard, but that can be more or less frequent depending on the needs and constraints of both women. Regardless, having clear expectations are essential; that way, no one feels overwhelmed or neglected by the level of communication.
It’s necessary to have an end goal. The more formal mentor-mentee relationship typically should last around 6–8 months. It can always transition to a different relationship — perhaps a more informal mentor-mentee relationship, colleagues, or even friends. Alternatively, the relationship can come to an amicable end — that is also ok. But it is useful for both parties to have a specific goal to try to meet in 6–8 months so that both people and the relationship can evolve and move on.

As a reminder: anyone can be a mentor, anyone can be a mentee, and we should all be connecting to support each other in this sector. Please reach out to womeninaid@gmail.com with any questions, stories, or ideas about mentorship among humanitarian women or if you’d like to see the webinar!