Unconscious Bias in Mentoring Relationships

Unconscious Bias in Mentoring RelationshipsHave you recognized the value of having a mentor, but struggled with how to find one? Have assumptions you made about a more senior colleague kept you from approaching them for mentoring? Have you been approached by a younger colleague for mentoring or other assistance, but been turned off by the way they made the request? At a recent event co-sponsored by the Indian-American Bar Association’s Women’s Committee, the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois, the CBA Alliance for Women and the Decalogue Society of Lawyers, a distinguished panel of four lawyers and a judge shared their perspectives on the importance of mentoring for attorneys, and the role unconscious bias can play in mentoring relationships.

The panelists, Karina Ayala-Bermejo, Senior Vice President of Metropolitan Family Services; Maureen Healy, a former litigator and now independent consultant; Erin Kelly, Assistant U.S. Attorney; Ava George Stewart, criminal defense attorney; and the Hon. Neera Walsh, Associate Judge of the Cook County Criminal Division, all brought unique points of view, and all credited one or more mentors with contributing to their success. The panel was moderated by Jami deLou, Manager of Talent Development, Diversity and Inclusion at Jenner & Block.

Stories of Key Mentors

To kick off the discussion, the panelists each shared the story of a key mentor, and the role they’d played in their career. Asked what advice they’d give on identifying and approaching a mentor, they provided some practical insights. Walsh suggested identifying people who can introduce you to those in professional circles you’d like to be part of. Stewart recommended thinking of selecting an “all-star” team of advisor/mentors, akin to selecting a fantasy sports team, as “no single mentor is likely to be able to give you all you need.” Kelly noted that, while she has been fortunate to have great on-the-job mentors, some of her most valuable relationships have been with mentors she’s met through bar associations and other professional organizations. She recalled relying on them for questions she wouldn’t have felt comfortable asking at her firm.

Ayala-Bermejo noted that, as a Latina, she looked to the Hispanic community first, initially for role models who later became friends and then mentors. “One of these mentors ended up becoming a sponsor,” Ayala-Bermejo said, “someone who took real risks to provide me with opportunities.”

Healy advised being open to “fortunate accidents” or serendipity. “It’s great when you can target someone as a mentor or sponsor, but sometimes it just happens when you least expect it, so long as you are open to it. Someone who started as a social friend ended up providing me with a really valuable speaking opportunity that resulted in great business opportunities for me.”

Research on Bias and Mentoring

Healy then shared some of her research on bias in the workplace, noting that women are socialized to be helpful and are expected to be helpful, thus causing them to be penalized when they are asked to do something and turn it down. Men, on the other hand, tend to be admired for saying no—if they have to decline an assignment, it must be because they are busy and in demand. Healy recommended that women decline by showing that accepting would impact a more important commitment that is more important to the organization.

Kelly recalled pointing out to a diversity director at her former firm that single attorneys with no children were assumed to be always available, because they did not have “family” commitments. The diversity director had been appalled at her inadvertent slight. Kelly later recognized her own bias in approaching men rather than women for help in the office, because their doors were open and they seemed less frantic, even though that wasn’t always in fact the case.

The panel discussed common myths surrounding women as mentors, including that they are not approachable, they don’t want to help other women, or that desirable mentors are already too busy mentoring others. In fact, many of these assumption are based on incorrect information. A 2013 study by DDI, Inc. found that most women want to mentor, but are concerned about either the time commitment or lack of subject-matter expertise. The panelists underscored that other facets of mentoring are equally or more important than technical knowledge, including strategic feedback, access to opportunities and networks, and career coaching.

Missteps to Avoid

The panelists suggested ways in which they had been approached that had discouraged them from helping, or made it more difficult. Judge Walsh noted the importance of a specific “ask”—that is, that the requestor has done some research and thinking about what it is they need from the colleague or potential mentor. Ayala-Bermejo echoed frustration with a general request to “pick your brain,” strongly preferring a specific request. Healy reiterated that the person asking for a favor should make the request easy for the respondent to say yes to. Further, she suggested that if someone seems willing to help you, but you are not sure what you want, or should request from them, ask for time to think it through, and then come back, rather than making an ill-conceived or a too-general request.

Other things that discouraged the panelists from helping were lack of punctuality, and lack of acknowledgement of assistance after the fact. Stewart noted that being even five minutes late sends a message that you do not respect the other person’s time, and causes them to make a negative determination about you and your professionalism and reliability. Healy added that she had been disappointed by not receiving any acknowledgement after doing favors for certain colleagues, which also felt like a lack of respect, and served as a disincentive to offering additional help when asked.

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