Episode 8: Mentors & Sponsors

In our second episode in a series on professional development, we explore all-things-mentorship. We hear from women in foreign policy and diversity & inclusion, both about their experiences mentoring and being mentored, as well as tips for choosing and approaching a mentor, becoming a mentor, and have a great mentorship experience! We spoke with Rukasana Bhaijee, Annie Freyshlag, Leonie Ansems de Vries, Marissa Fortune, and Alexia D'Arco.

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Annika Erickson-Pearson:  Hello and welcome to this month’s episode of Women in Foreign Policy! I’m Annika, one of your hosts. I’m a graduate student in Geneva, Switzerland.

Ashley Pratt: And I’m Ashley, your other host. I’m a foreign policy practitioner working in Washington, DC.  You’re listening to the monthly podcast of the Women in Foreign Policy organization, where each month, Annika and I discuss a different topic related to foreign policy careers and professions.

Annika: This episode continues our series on professional development. Last month, we kicked it off with an episode about professional development organizations and spoke to a lot of interesting women about the different organizations that they belong to or run, so if you missed that episode I highly recommend going back and listening. This month we’ll be talking about mentorship and sponsorship. And in the months ahead we’ll talk about the transition from school into the work life, or professional life, as well as public speaking. But just a heads up, if you have any other ideas or questions that you have about professional development that you’d really love to hear us discuss, feel free to find us and let us know what you want to hear. And now, as usual, before we dive into hearing from the incredible women who work in foreign policy on today’s episode, we want to give them a chance to introduce themselves.

Annie Freyschlag: Hi, my name’s Annie Freyschlag. I’m the founder and lead consultant at Primum International Social Impact Consulting. We’re a consulting firm supporting nonprofits and social enterprises in a bunch of different segments from renewable energy to clean transportation and other areas. I live in Geneva, Switzerland.

Leonie Ansems de Vries: My name is Leonie Ansems de Vries. I’m a lecturer in International Relations at King’s College London in the Department of War Studies. I’ve taught here for a couple of years, before this I lectured at Queen Mary University of London and at University of Nottingham in Malaysia. My research mostly focuses on the issue of migration and refugees, specifically the so-called ‘refugee crisis’. I’m especially interested in the way migration is governed at the moment, but also the ways in which people continue to try and move and thinking about ways forward in terms of legal avenues for people to move, but also really understanding the lived experiences of migrants. Another part of my research is more conceptual and looks into the question of politics.

Marissa Fortune: Hi, my name is Marissa Fortune. I’m a graduate student at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies focusing mostly on peace and conflict studies. And I’m currently an intern at the Geneva Center for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces, where we do work on security sector reform. My background is mostly in Canadian government work: immigration, citizenship, and refugees, and also a little bit of policy analysis for employment and social development. I’m originally from Montreal and did my undergraduate at McGill University, and now I’m based in Geneva.

Rukasana Bhaijee: Hi, my name is Rukasana Bhaijee. I work for EY and I’m a diversity and inclusion consultant. I’ve been at EY for 4 years now and I’ve been in diversity and inclusion for about 7 years. I’m also a mum, and I have 2 boys.

Annika: This is Annika, chiming back in. For those of you who don’t know, EY stands for Ernst and Young, a consulting firm. And our last guest, Alexia, we don’t have an introduction from but she’s the President of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. You’ll be hearing from her throughout the show.

Ashley: So, today’s episode is about mentorship and sponsorship. When I first started diving into the topic and looking for women that we wanted to talk to about it, I didn’t have a great conception of what the difference actually was. Frankly, I did not really think that there was a difference. I had not heard the word sponsorship applied to this situation before in my entire life. Now, after talking to all of these women, I have a crystal clear idea of the distinction between the two and why you might want to pick different people for different roles. So we asked our experts, what’s the difference between mentorship and sponsorship? Why do I need different people for these roles? Who should I be asking? And Rukasana started us off with an excellent answer.

Rukasana: I think they are very different. So a mentor is someone who acts as a guide, advises, supports, and you’re learning from them. But a sponsor, or sponsorship in its sense is almost like... The sponsor acts as an advocate. The sponsor opens doors, opens opportunities, and creates a platform to lift you up into that next stage of your career. Sponsorship can be very different and very powerful when it’s done well. Sponsorship is something specifically at EY that we sponsorship programs because we recognize, and there’s HBR research that shows this, that women are over-mentored and under-sponsored. Sponsorship, if you know that you need a sponsor, and in some organizations some people do need sponsorship in order to progress. If that is something that you need, or you feel a sponsor would be beneficial to help accelerate your journey, then if you’re organization doesn’t run a sponsorship program, really think about your own network. Who is in your network that would make a good sponsor? Who is in your network that could help advocate for you? Could open doors and opportunities? So when I say advocate, it’s a person that’s say really great things about you when you’re not in the room to the people that it matters to the most. So you probably know, based on your needs, who that might look like.  

Ashley: Alexia also provided some commentary on this particular question.

Alexia: Sure, so I think you know, if you look at the literature there technically is a line between mentorships and sponsorship. I think ideally you find both in the same person, if not you go out to different communities. The way I view it is that mentorship- often the mentor is viewed as a little bit more of a passive role, where the mentee comes to them and asks questions. But I think good mentors or really sponsors are people who will take a proactive approach to the relationship and really push you and actively help you, try to find jobs, try to find connections or really push your career to the next level. So I ideally look for someone who's going to do that. But sometimes you need someone who is just going to give you information and in that case I would go to a mentor, if I don’t necessarily need someone to help me take things to the next level.

Ashley: Of course, not everyone experiences this divide so distinctly. My former professor, Leonie Ansems de Vries, commented that she doesn’t really see a difference between mentors and sponsors and that the same person can serve both purposes at different points in your career.

Leonie: I don’t know, actually, if academia is unique in this, but of course the mentorship role and to some extent the sponsorship role is part of the way in which academia is organized. When you teach or you are a student, you always have a supervisor, you’ve got a personal tutor. There are these different kind of roles already that are part of the structure of an academic institution. I think to some extent that’s also how mentorship works: you have a personal tutor who you then ask these questions, you ask for advice, and so on; or if you are doing a PhD, you would have a supervisor who of course will advise you on your PhD, your research project, but also often on other issues. Having said that, I think there are also more informal systems of menteeship and of sponsorship. In my own experience, as an undergraduate, postgraduate, and as a PhD student, this has often very much come about by people I might have just talked to and with whom I felt comfortable who then offered me other sorts of advice as well. Sometimes that has continued over the years or sometimes that might have been for a specific period.

Annika: So I’m really glad that we teased out that nuance with the women that we spoke with because as Ashley and I joked about at the beginning of this episode, I definitely was really confused about the difference between mentorship and sponsorship. But regardless, the next question stands for either: Why do I need a mentor? What’s the point? What are the benefits? Why should someone who is listening to this podcast seek one out? Marissa starts us out.

Marissa: When I think I think about mentorship, I think there are different kinds of mentorship, and different kinds of mentorship have different benefits. So there’s personal mentors who you can learn from different life skills like communication skills, or spiritual mentors, personal mentors, and people you look up to in terms of the way they live their life. And then there’s professional mentors who you might not tell about your family issues, but you would seek career advice from them. And then there are also peer mentors, who are people who are on the same level as you and you are doing the same thing but with different areas of expertise, so you can learn from each other. So I think when it comes to picking a mentor and what kind of mentor you want, you have to think about what your goals are: are they personal? Are they professional? And who would be the best kind of person to help you learn what you want to learn?

Annika: And we heard from Rukasana on this topic as well.

Rukasana: It’s so important to have mentors in your life, whether it’s for work or personal reasons, because individuals will no doubt have been there before. They’ve been there, worn the t-shirt, been there and done that. So what a mentor does is provide almost like your travel guidebook. And the guidance. So they help lay out your path, or I call it like a lawn mower. They almost clear the way for you, clear the lawn, and provide guidance, support, and really provide that understanding and wise words of wisdom, depending on what the mentor is for. Yeah it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking, “I’m working really hard. I’m keeping my head down. My outputs are great, and this is all being recognized.” Well, how do we know it is? Have we checked with someone? Have we asked? Are we clear on process? Are we clear on next steps and how they actually happen? There would be absolutely no harm in nudging that and really understanding the kind of invisible hurdles and barriers that might be in the way.

Annika: And Leonie wanted to talk about why mentors are necessary.

Leonie: I think from the perspective of being a mentee, I think it’s partly just support and people just explaining how things work and also that all sorts of issues and anxieties that you might have, especially when you’re doing a PhD or post-PhD, that that is normal, that is part of the process, or that it’s not, and that it’s something to look into. I think there is a lot that is not quite clear or that is anxiety-inducing and there’s a lot of pressure on people. So having that kind of support is really helpful.

In academia right now, things are not easy for early-career scholars. They’re very tough. There’s a lot of casualization going on, and exploitation, I would say, in ways as well. So there is this gap between finishing a PhD and then going on and that is just a really difficult time and I know a lot of people are struggling with that. And there are specific ways - when people are marginalized, often it is even more difficult. So having this kind of mentor relationship during that time is really important, if you can - it’s not always available. If you can, try and find someone that can support you. And initially just start with peers, because peer support is important as well. But do try and go up to someone or informally chat with someone who you think you could have a good supportive relationship with. Because I know also from my own personal experience that can really make a difference.

Ashley: Now that we’ve established that yes, you do need a mentor. This is a really important relationship professionally, and definitely go seek out a mentor or sponsor as you see fit. But who should you be asking? Who should you be looking at to fill this position in your professional network? What’s the best way to approach that person, once you’ve identified that person and decided “yes I want that person as my mentor or sponsor”? Annie had some words of wisdom for us.

Annie: Approaching a mentor is probably the scariest part of developing this, but I encourage everyone to think about it more as a relationship than a mentorship. Think about it like building a friendship. So in your workplace, you can just say hello to people when you are walking in for the day, when you’re getting water, if you’re still in academia do this with your professors and within your internships. In my opinion, it goes more smoothly if you start small by introducing yourself, like you would in any other relationship or friendship. Like, “Hi, I’m new here. I’m Annie, I work in X department.” Start small like that and build your network. Learn which colleagues have the skills that you want to develop. This skill is helpful because then you can kind of figure out which people slowly have the right skills. I found that some of the most valuable skills you can gain from a mentor are not super visible directly. So, the approach of just identifying someone that you want to talk to and then going and asking them might not always provide you the best outcomes because you might not be able to find those skills. For example, a more quiet member of the staff might have the skill of developing really strong trust among other colleagues. That skill, having people trust you completely both personally and professionally, is a very subtle but incredibly valuable skill that will go a long way. You’re not necessarily going to be able to identify that person in your workplace that has that skill, you’re not necessarily going to find them purely on first glance. But through slowly learning about people, and developing relationships and connections slowly, then you come to know those skills and who has them.  Ask them for coffee, ask them to go out after work, and say “hey, I noticed that you’ve cultivated this sense of trust among other people and I would find it super valuable if I could learn more about how you’ve approached your career. Would you be interested in mentoring me?” It kind of eases that transition a little bit.

Ashley: Alexia also had a lot of expertise in picking a great sponsor or mentor.

Alexia: Sure, I mean I would say you probably need a couple different mentors, you know some who are going to be that overall person, someone who’s really in your career path, someone that you want advice from on how to navigate, assuming they sort of have your similar trajectory or you know end position. And then I think it’s also really important to network with people and find mentors who are very different than you. Because I think we often get so much in our lane that we forget that there are other options and other opportunities. So I would say casting the net far and wide, especially early on in your career, I think that’s even more important than later. First obviously you have to see if the person is willing to mentor you, so you have to actually ask them, it’s helpful if you have a really clear perspective on what it is you want from them. Usually mentors want to know what sort of time commitment, you know concretely what you’re asking for. I think sometimes people frame mentorship questions when what they actually want is a job, so I would say a mentor is not there to get you a job, a mentor might be able to help you do that, but really it’s primarily about information and advice and then you start bridging into more of like sponsorship if you’re asking for someone to help you get a job. Again, all totally fine things, it’s just helpful to be clear upfront and be realistic about your expectations. I think people are more willing to mentor if they know exactly what it is that you are asking. So I would say just to recapitulate, cast the net far and wide, be very specific and then lastly be really respectful of people’s time. You know, if you’ve asked them for an hour a week or an hour a month try to stick to that and then be very prompt in your fellow-up and saying “thank you”.

Annika: So now that we know who we should ask to be our mentor, and we know a little bit about the best way to approach someone to be our mentor, it’s also imperative that we turn around and look at ourselves, right? So not only “Who should I be asking and how should I be asking them?” But also “what are the types of characteristics that I should cultivate within myself if I want to have a successful mentorship experience? What is it that I can do that can possibly improve this experience and also make it really enriching for my mentor?” We don’t want this to just be a one-way street. So Annie had some particularly brilliant things to say on this topic and she starts us off.

Annie: Being a quick learner is always a good payoff. If your mentor feels like your relationship is providing tangible outcomes, then I think it will increase their level of investment in you. So the more you can do to really put your whole energy into what you’re learning… it’s less a skill, but more something you can do on a day-to-day basis: being present, focusing on everything that you’re learning, and doing everything that you can to achieve those goals. For example, after a mentoring session, you can go home and journal about what you and your mentor discussed. And then, when you meet next, bring mental notes on what did or did not work and why. It doesn’t necessarily have to be super formal, like bringing actual notes, but rather “Hey, you said this last time and it really sank in with me. Then I tried it in the workplace and this was the outcome. What are your thoughts on that?” And that shows your mentor that you’re really taking their recommendations into account, you’re listening, and the time that’s being invested in you will be a stronger payoff for them. Which, in the long run, will increase their investment in you. So that’s less a skill and more a presence.

Annika: Alexia also shared some great ideas about characteristics to cultivate.

Alexia: The only caveat I would say is that’s important for both people to understand what they want out of it and then even if you’re not actively going back to that person for advice, it’s really important to say “thank you”. And I think you know having been on the mentor side much more in recent years, it’s really nice when mentees reach out and sort of just let me know what they’ve been doing: career successes, marriages, babies, articles published, being on a podcast, what have you. Just to sort of keep that relationship open. I think a lot of people view networking as being very very transactional and while functionally it can be, I think it’s nice to stay in touch even if it’s not directly related to the reason you initially reached out, if that makes sense.

Annika: And Leonie also had some things to share.

Leonie: It can be different things, but one of them is to really think about what is the kind of support and relationship that you’re looking for. Be quite clear with yourself what it is that you need and what you think that the person [you’re asking to mentor you] can help you with or give you. I think that’s really important. Also be clear about what the boundaries are for that and whether that’s more formal or an informal relationship. Make sure that you are as much as you can - if you for instance say, “if you could look at a paper for me, I will send something,” then make sure that you do that or at least keep them informed about the process and what’s going on. As far as you can, be reliable in that relationship or just at least you communicate if there are any issues. Show an interest in your mentor and what your mentor is doing. You can have fantastic mentor/mentee relationships whereby actually in some ways it was two-way. Of course there is a clear relationship where one is more supervising and the other is drawing on that, but at the same time, because we’re in academia, we’re dealing with ideas. It could be interesting to offer, you know, “Do you want me to read a draft of your paper?” Or “maybe we can organize a panel at a workshop” or something like that. So I think there are possibilities to also create something different than just that mentor-mentee relationship as a one-way street.

Ashley: Yeah, I really think that what this answer boils down to, at least in large part, is that you need to treat the person that you are establishing this relationship with like a real person. Not just someone you can use to further your career, but someone who has feelings, and time that they are trying to manage, and an inbox that’s overflowing just like yours. And in that vein, we talked about some common mistakes these women had witnessed in and around mentorship relationships. And a lot of them, I have to admit, could have been circumvented by just considering your mentor or sponsor as though they were a real living, breathing human being with feelings, just like you. Leonie started us off with some great commentary on avoiding these particular mistakes.

Leonie: As a mentee, I think it’s perhaps becoming overly reliant or expecting too much. This is just something that you need to have a conversation about, and it also depends on how formal or how informal it is. That’s really important to establish. But equally also, to make sure that if this is a relationship that you have been cultivating over a while, to not just abandon that when things go well and you have success and you got your dream job, don’t just walk away from your mentor. Because that’s a great moment to then give back and cultivate a different kind of relationship. As a mentor, I think one of the things - and this is something I personally need to be very careful about - is to make sure you have sufficient time to support people. In academia, there’s never enough time, we’re under a lot of pressure, we have a lot of work, and I think it’s very important to support people but only do so if you’re actually able to. If you don’t really have the time, then it might be better to think of maybe someone else who might be able to support them and actually give the proper support, because otherwise again you won’t be able to cultivate a good relationship with someone and properly support them if you don’t have the time to do so. This is something that I find difficult, that I need to be clear about with myself - how many people can I support and do it well?

Ashley: Marissa had some excellent tips for avoiding common mentorship mistakes.

Marissa: The first [mistake] that comes to mind immediately is asking for a job. Don’t ask your mentor for a job. I think that makes it awkward. I have a mentor who is super into networking, and she always puts me in touch with a million people that she thinks I could get along with. She’s constantly thinking about opportunities, jobs, etc., but it’s not the kind of relationship where she would offer me a job. And that’s not the kind of relationship I want. I think if you’re looking to get a job immediately, mentorship is not how that’s going to happen. Mentorship is a long game. It’s not a, “Okay I got a mentor and they gave me an internship,” it’s “Okay I got a mentor. They gave me some really great advice, and three years down the line they invited me to an event where I met this person who invited me to apply for this job which I didn’t get but I did meet someone else who helped me to get the job I have today.” That’s the way that mentorship in reality helps your career. But if you’re looking for a job, or to get something concrete immediately out of mentorship that’s just not going to happen. It’s just not realistic. And that’s not the kind of thing that mentorship is good for. What mentorship is best for is learning soft skills of conversation, networking, getting advice, being able to converse about your field and talk in an adult way about issues with someone who knows more than you and get their input. It’s not the kind of thing where you go have coffee with someone once and ask them to give you a job, at least not in the field of international security, which I think is where most of the listeners would be interested in.

Not having clear goals would be, not a mistake, but you wouldn’t be getting the most out of your experience. And of course, if one of your goals is “get a job,” that might not be the best goal. But to say “I want to establish a relationship with someone who I can go to for advice,” or “I want to work on my communication skills,” or networking skills, or to expand my knowledge of this specific area within international relations… having goals like that allows you to, when you meet with your mentor, to be able to ask specific questions. If you’re not curious and you don’t have questions to ask, you can’t expect your mentor to take you by the hand and say “Let me show you this entire world that you didn’t know existed.” You have to be the one to put in the work and say “this is what I want to know about.”

Annika: I think this is honestly such an important question. And I’m really glad that we were able to hear wisdom from some of the women on this topic. The one thing that I’ll add is I think a big mistake that we often make in different areas of our life is just not saying thank you. Just not being grateful and communicating it. People are taking time out of their very busy lives to share advice with you, to help you in your career and in your journey, and the least we can do is to say thank you. So if there’s one thing that you take away from this episode, it is: remember to communicate your gratitude to the incredible people who are sharing their time and talent with you.

Some of you might be listening and saying, “Okay this is all great and interesting, but what if I want to become a mentor to someone? What if I have time and talent that I want someone to thank me for? How do I become a mentor to someone?” So we asked the women as well. Annie had some great things to share about mentorship.

Annie: I am a mentor.  I think it comes pretty naturally if you are seeking genuine connection in the workplace. The way that I’ve experienced that with my friends who are a few years younger than me. In my former job, I usually had 2-3 interns at a time, about 20 in total over the course of that job, who reported to me. And they’ve actually become some of my best friends. They are the people who I hang out with on the weekends, who I go on road trips with, etc. I worked really hard, as soon as I was at the level of management, to treat people who reported to me as equals. I never used titles of superiority. I always introduced them as my colleagues, not my “interns,” and had other measures to ensure that they felt empowered as my equals. And then, to take it further, going out after work for drinks and things like that, we became natural friends. And I became someone they could come to for professional advice much more naturally. I shared my stories of struggles in the workplace and they were able to share theirs. I still write letters of recommendation, do practice job interviews, give professional advice, and do whatever I can to help them succeed because I’m invested in their future. They not only worked with me but they became people that I respect and they respect me. Very mutual and genuine connections.

Annika: Marissa also had thoughts about the process of becoming a mentor.

Marissa: When it comes to mentoring in my life, I think of my role as mentor more as an attitude than a formal relationship. I’m not a formal mentor, but I think there’s a lot of informal mentorship opportunities. And it’s more of a kind of “pay it forward” attitude because so many people helped me get to where I am, so I’m in a place where I am constantly looking for ways to lift other people up and help other people in the way that I’ve been helped. So I guess it’s more of an openness to being a mentor, and not being a formal mentor, but I’m always open to people who want to ask me questions. I have so many younger students that I know from my undergrad who are now applying to grad school, and they’re asking questions about grad applications or asking professors for references. And of course I’m not their “mentor,” but of course I’m going to help them out. And that’s also a part of mentorship.

So specifically for women in foreign policy and security studies, it’s so important to support other women and give them opportunities because it’s such a male-dominated industry. So I see mentorship as such a concrete way of having solidarity in this space and creating space for other women in this field.

Annika: And finally, Rukasana had some great things to say on this topic, including a conversation about the concept of reverse mentoring.

Rukasana: So there are a number of ways to become a mentor. That might be through formal mentoring schemes. A number of organizations, women’s groups, as well as groups in organizations, will have opportunities to become a mentor. There are also other schemes externally. Another group that I’m part of, specifically to tackle the triple penalty that Muslim women face, is Muslim Women Connect. And it’s a group specifically to connect professional Muslim women with each other in order to counteract the triple penalty of being a woman who is probably from an ethnic minority and a Muslim. It’s a really great forum as a mentor for me to support young professional women who I can help to build their confidence, aspirations, and goals. There are number of different ways, and it may happen organically as well. You may be in an existing relationship that’s a friendship where you know that, if you have strengths yourself, that you could provide a good mentoring relationship. And that might be something that happens organically as well, if you don’t actively look for a formal scheme.

I think with an intersectional hat on, as an intersectional feminist, I think different groups potentially have different needs so that’s where mentoring for a specific group may be of benefit to individuals. It really depends on your own needs, and that might be navigating an organization or navigating a disadvantage or being from an ethnic minority.

There are so many benefits to being a mentor, as well as being on the receiving end of mentorship and of being a sponsor as well. It’s a really great learning experience for mentors and there’s so much value in learning from your mentees. The mentor always ends up learning as much as the individual that’s being mentored, I would say. The other thing that’s really becoming popular and it really effective and practical is reverse mentoring. So reverse mentoring is where the younger person, or the less-experienced person, in a relationship is mentoring somebody more senior in their organization. And that provides an opportunity to share lived experience, to raise the more senior person’s awareness, and to help them to almost walk in someone else’s shoes. And so if we’re talking about women: we had a reverse mentoring scheme here at EY where we had a number of women mentoring senior leaders to share their lived experience of what it felt like to be a woman at EY at a particular level. And we’ve since done a reverse mentoring program and opened it up to women as well as ethnic minorities as well as LGBT individuals and people with disabilities. It’s something that’s gained traction externally as well in the UK; it was something that was recommended in Ruby McGregor-Smith’s report on ethnicity to help leaders understand the lived experience of being an ethnic minority in the workplace. So I think reverse mentoring.. One of our leaders used a reverse mentoring relationship to understand how to use social media because it’s something they didn’t know. So it could be something that people use to share skills or to stay ahead of the game. So it could be used for a number of reasons.

Ashley: So you’ve decided, “Yes, I definitely need a mentor. Oh my gosh, all of this advice is so helpful. I’m convinced. Let me go out and find someone right now.” And you know what characteristics you are looking for. You know that they should be 2-3 levels above you in their professional life. But then you stop. Because maybe you’re a woman of color, or maybe you’re disabled, or maybe you belong to a certain religious or ethnic group. And you’re thinking, “Wow. Is it more useful for me to go out and find someone who looks like me to mentor or sponsor me? Or should I accept any old white guy because they’re going to have the kind of connections that I do need?”

And that’s a difficult question. I don’t think anyone can give you a 100% cut and dried answer. But the women we spoke to really tried to address the different dimensions of that question and I think they did it in a really thoughtful and interesting way. Alexia gave some advice on finding someone who looks like you versus someone who can do the things you need them to do.

Alexia: A lot of people have this sort of antiquated view of mentorship, that the mentor has to be older and that’s also definitely not the case in my experience. I think you can see a lot of peer mentorship. People who have had different life experiences, who are in different sectors, you can learn just as much from them and sometimes a lot more. Because if you go for the older theoretically wiser person, it may have been so long since they had to manoeuvre the same space that you’re in that their advice may not be that relevant to you - so finding somebody who is a classmate or even someone who is younger than you are, to mentor you. I’ve had so many current interns and previous interns and colleagues who have been able to help with things like marketing, social media, IT. Some of them have had different experiences culturally in different types of the world and they've provided incredibly helpful information to me. I think it’s important to look up, down and all around when you look for your mentors.

Ashley: Annie also had some thoughts she wanted to share.

Annie: Yeah, in one way, I think someone who is similar to you will likely have experienced some of the same troubles that you are experiencing or will experience throughout your career. So in that way, it can make you feel more confident in navigating some of those particular difficulties to have someone who is a bit more like you. For example, one thing that I’ve experienced in the workplace is “mansplaining.” So I’ve been in meetings where I’ll have an idea and start to explain something and a man who, by biology, has a louder voice and may be more confident will interrupt me, or maybe even let me finish but then say the same idea in a slightly different way. And this is pretty common in the workplace still, unfortunately. So what a female mentor can do is speak up in those meetings, and after you are mansplained, they can say something like “Actually, I think Annie was saying the same thing.” Or if you’re interrupted, they can interrupt the interrupter and say something like, “Hold on for just a minute, I would really like to hear what Annie has to say,” and direct the focus back to you. And what’s cool about this is then we can actually play that same role for our female mentors, because even though they are probably older than us, they are likely experiencing the same things still. These are perpetual issues that are maybe little by little going away, but still exist. So that’s an example of where you can be reciprocal in your mentorship. In that way, I think finding somebody who shares your struggles is beneficial.

But on the other side, using the same example, if we’re only working with people who have experienced what we’ve experienced, then we’re never going to deconstruct the problems themselves. So having mentors that are the exact opposite of me, I can learn about their frame of reference: what moves them professionally? What moves them personally? And by understanding that, I can more effectively have discussions about how to change the problems that arise for people like me. I can share my experience with that person. Developing friendships with, for example, a successful male professional who may the loudest one in the room, I can share my experience in a vulnerable way while seeking their solutions. And then that kind of vulnerability and friendship dynamic brings an intuitive investment in the mentee’s future. So it may have an impact on their professional demeanor as well. If I’m able to talk about mansplaining to the loudest person in the room, in that vulnerable way, it can shock them. I don’t have to call them out on it, but it can help to deconstruct that problem and they can help transition that to other mansplainers.

Annika: And Rukasana had some thoughts on this question as well.

Rukasana: I think this one really comes down to personal preference. Some women may prefer a woman: somebody that they can look at at a senior level and see she’s managed work-life balance, she has children, so I can relate to her. Or you might see somebody else. In fact one of my mentors is a white male. And I’m a woman of color, of visible faith. So you would think there’s not much commonality, but I really identify with the individual’s values, their purpose, and so I asked the white male to be a mentor. But I have other mentors as well who are different. So there’s a white female, but also a woman of color for me. But I think it’s personal preference, so when you’re thinking about who you want to be your mentor… you’ve heard the saying, “You can’t be what you can’t see,” so when people look to the tops of organizations and they can’t see role models or mentors that look like them, it can be a turnoff. And the real way to counter that is to think, “Okay well are this individual’s values and what’s their purpose and what will they bring to this relationship, if we were to create a new relationship?”

Annika: This episode has been really interesting for me. I think that I’ve had a lot of mentorship-type relationships that I didn’t necessarily know were mentorship. And so hearing so many stories and reactions about different women at different stages in their careers, at different ages and different fields, etc. has been very affirming. I think we definitely don’t have to have one type of mentorship experience, but know that we as women particularly in the foreign policy field are here to support one another. And that’s one of the greatest gifts that we can give to one another. This field is so outweighed by male voices, and the more that we can engage both as mentors and mentees with other women our collective capacity to make a difference is strengthened. So I really hope that this episode has inspired you. I know that it has inspired Ashley and I.

Ashley: Wow. I have to admit that before I started working on this episode, this was not a priority of mine. And I probably have been guilty to a lesser extent to some of the mistakes we talked about in terms of fostering these relationships, especially in terms of perhaps not showing enough gratitude or value for other people’s time as might be ideal. One of the things that maybe doesn’t come through as often as it happens is that Annika and I learn from this experience as well. We are learning so much from getting to talk to these women and getting to have these exchanges with them, pick their brains and ask them all of our burning questions. I consider myself an early-career professional, and I think Annika is in much the same boat. So having the opportunity to be the voices of young women in this field is so valuable for us personally. But also an enormous privilege that I am deeply grateful for.  

We want to know what you think about this as well, we want this to be a conversation, so please do come talk to us on the internet. We’ll be back at the end of February with our next episode on networking and developing professional relationships. It will also be a part of this professional development series. We would love to hear any questions you might have about networking, any concerns you’ve experience, or networking horror stories… all of this we’d love to hear. We’re on twitter, we’re on email, and we’d love to hear from you. In the meantime, we’re on Twitter at @WomeninFP. The organization is on Instagram, and then Annika and I are both personally on Instagram. My personal twitter is @vaguelyacademic and that’s my instagram handle as well.

Annika:  Yep, and I’m on Instagram and Twitter @annikaep. We’d love to hear from you, as we’ve mentioned, but also if you like the work we’re doing, please subscribe. Please share this with your friends or the other women in your office. Like I said, this really spreads when it becomes a movement. So share! And finally, if you really like the work we’re doing consider supporting us via PayPal at lmgoulet or on Patreon at Women in Foreign Policy. We’re so grateful to have the opportunity to do this work and it’s really only from support from listeners like you that we get to continue.

Ashley: Thank you so much for your time. Thank you for listening to us, thank you for being here, thank you for all of your support and lovely emails that people have been sending. We really appreciate it and value your time, so we’re grateful that you choose to spend it listening to us and content we put together. So we will see you next month and don’t forget to share episode if you are so moved. See you later!

Annika: Bye!