Finding a Mentor As a Woman (In Times Like These)

Most of the books I read are written by well-educated, white, straight, American males. There’s nothing wrong with this, necessarily. I happen to know and love a lot of well-educated, white, straight, American males.

But as it turns out, I don’t actually belong to this “group”, which sometimes makes their frame of reference and advice a little less than applicable to my life.

This is painfully obvious when it comes to diet, fitness, and professional ambition.

An example comes from a recent article from one of my favorite authors titled: How To Be A Professional Son (Or Daughter). This is no slight at Ryan Holiday - he was sharing this article to help promote a piece of a narrative non-fiction book he’d just written and did a fine job of explaining why he geared the article towards young men, not women.

But there was something in the article itself that struck me.

Holiday writes:

“It should be noted that ingratiating flattery for selfish ends (and being susceptible to it) is not a trait exclusive to men. There are professional daughters too (Maya Angelou and Oprah Winfrey had such a relationship), though the father-daughter relationship is more complicated (Warren Buffet and Katharine Graham had such a relationship until it turned sexual. John Doerr and Ellen Pao had one until a bad workplace environment got in the way).”

This statement wouldn’t matter so much if women were equally represented in positions of power and authority. It would be equal to say that the professional mother-son relationship is awkward at best, predatory at worst.

But that is not the case. According to an article published by Vox back in June, only 4.8% of Fortune 500 companies are headed by female CEOs. As of this writing, only three of this week’s top 15 nonfiction NYT bestsellers were written by women (one of those having been authored by former First Lady, Michelle Obama).

While these are limited examples, there are many male-dominated industries in which this logic applies. There isn’t as much opportunity for a mother-daughter relationship at certain companies or in certain circles as there is for father-daughter relationship (and even less than father-son).

One such circle is academia. According to a survey conducted by National Center for Education Statistics: “While women held nearly half (48.9%) of all tenure-track positions in 2015, they held just 38.4% of tenured positions.”

As aspiring professors progress, female representation goes from almost half to just more than a third. But this isn’t just about raw numbers. This is a reflection of how power is concentrated. The professors in those tenured positions now squeeze the juice - teach the best classes, have budget for research assistants, etc.

As it turns out, early on in my career (in academia), I ended up in a father-daughter relationship of this kind. A professor took me under his wing, promising to turn this rock into a diamond—through a decade-long apprenticeship. I ate it up. Oh, the delusion of youth.

The truth? I always had this gut level discomfort when we were alone. Emotional (never physical) lines were crossed. He told me things he should have never told me, confided in me in ways he shouldn’t have. Out of fear, out of guilt, out of obligation, out of a need to feel validated - I often asked him for guidance, too.

In retrospect, it was unhealthy from the get. The signs had been there all along. The power dynamic between the two of us - him having the keys to my dreams and me wanting them - kept me on desperate little toes.

Eventually, I had some sense knocked into me and I quit. It was heartbreaking at the time. I was so angry. I never thought that would happen to me. I mean, I’m gay and he knew that.

What I realize later is that no one expects this. We want to think better of other humans than that so we convince ourselves out of listening to our intuition.

There are too many instances across the zeitgeist in which things have gone south in this way. In this year alone, we saw what I would consider to be a (long past) national treasure - Bill Cosby - be sentenced to prison for aggressive, sexual conduct at women in film. We’ve seen this played out with numerous esteemed politicians. And on a personal level, I’ve had many friends explain similar (sometimes worse) situations regarding men at their respective workplaces.

Which is why that passage from Holiday’s article struck me. There is an underlying inequality to the statement, one that has less (directly) to do with pay and everything to with the quality of opportunities we as women see, feel, and experience.

Because it’s harder for women to land the right apprenticeships, ones that are clear of all remnants of misguided sexual, emotional, or physical contact, it’s harder to grow and contribute in certain professional spheres. And because it’s harder to be open and trust the process, as we are guided to do, growth often happens a lot slower.

Under this guise, the gender pay gap, insufficient representation at the top, and issues with sexual misconduct and abuse of power, are all connected and compounding. From where I’m sitting today - we need not just fight top-down, but bottom-up.

This is as much about C-Suite titles as it is about early-career learning opportunities. It is not just up to the women at the top to raise the younger generations, but on the younger generations to rise to the challenge.

As always, it has taken some brave, principled, strong, kind, and strategic women, willing to take courageous action in the name of equality.

That is what we are here to do. Still. And for as long as it takes.

We are lucky to live in a time in which plenty of women are carving new paths for themselves. Day by day, they are rising to positions of power, starting their own companies, crafting their own stories.

As a young woman aspiring to be somebody, find those women and seek their guidance. And find those that are only a few steps ahead of you. Ask intelligent questions. Serve them by being the best ‘professional daughter’ you can be. Even pay them for their guidance to maintain some professionalism, if need be.

And when it comes to your dream, never let someone else hold the keys. Stay guarded in your search to become the professional daughter anyone successful. The person you call your mentor holds critical importance in your life. And remember: there are many good men out there, just a few that can soil the batch. [Update: I have since been in many mentor/mentee relationships (with men) that have worked well, although it’s taken some time to heal those original wounds.]

And at the end of the day, if you can’t find a suitable mentor, be one. Develop your own strategies. Build your own bridges. Use books, podcasts, and documentaries as your guide. Design your own apprenticeship. Teach those a few years behind you.

And always remember, adversity is not a burden, but a gift. If you use it right, it will make you better. There is strength in being who you are. And there is so much opportunity in times like these.

And I know, because you’ve read all the way to the end of this, that you have so much untapped potential to reach and grace to give.

So get out there and make it happen.

Kate Ward