For Valentines Day this year, my parents sent me a pile of childhood photos, which they know I love exploring. As I flipped through the stack, I landed on the picture below. Nine-year-old Tamara, standing next to her mother who, on that day, was graduating from Eastern Washington University with a BA in Education.
This was a big moment for my mom, who had dropped out of high school and become a runaway at the age of 13. A GED, a certificate in carpentry, a low income women’s carpentry startup, two years in the Peace Corps, a marriage to my father and three children later, she held a diploma in one hand and me — her mentee — in the other.
The week I started kindergarten, my mother started her BA program at EWU. We brought our homework home each night and studied together. Perhaps because of this, there was no doubt in my mind that I would one day go to college. When she spent six months in Lesotho working on her doctoral dissertation during my sophomore year of college, there was no doubt in my mind that I would one day get an advanced degree, or that I would travel the globe. I wasn’t told that I should do these things, I wasn’t pressured. Rather, I was mentored daily by an incredible woman.
As the organizer of Friday's Young Professionals International Network Speed Mentorship event, I’ve been meeting for coffee and chatting on the phone with dozens of trailblazing, ass-kicking, Seattle based female leaders. They’ve had fascinating stories to share of the women that helped or hindered them along their way, the opportunities and roadblocks encountered, and the kind of mentors they hope to be for future female leaders.
Some have asked why women’s mentorship should be any different than men’s mentorship. The truth is, it shouldn’t be. But it is.
Barbara Standal, one of the event's Speed Mentors, reflected on her 1970s education: “I would have loved to have some women mentors, but I was one out of eight women in a law program of 100.” Standal wouldn’t have her first female mentor until she began working as a lawyer for the U.S. government years later, and even then her mentors were women at her same level. “I’ve had women heroes, but mostly from a distance. For a long time it was a man’s world, and it was hard for women to get together.”
Now, women make up close to half of law school students, 31.9 percent of all lawyers, and comprise over half of management, professional, and related professions according to one Catalyst study. If we can muster up the courage to ask them, we have access to “binders full” of female mentors, and even more female heroes.
And yet, only 11 out of over 180 countries have elected women heads of state and the National Committee on Pay Equity reports that U.S. women are still earning only 77 percent of what men earn. In Washington state this adds up to a $500,000 loss for a typical woman over her 40-year career. In Fortune 500 companies men still represent 96.6 percent of CEOs, 92.5 percent of top earners, 85.9 percent of executive officers and 83.9 percent of board members. And women make up only 18.1 percent of the 535 seats in the 113th U.S. Congress.
When will female mentorship become comparable to male mentorship? When our fields are influenced and led by comparable numbers of women and men and the wage gap has been eliminated.
I won't say it’s the silver bullet, but a little mentorship can go a long way. “It’s nerve racking to put yourself out there, and most people don’t like networking,” said Melody Biringer, founder of the Crave Company. Still, she says, “all you need is the X and the Y, and someone else will bring the Z.”
It can help to share mutual connections, but, as Martina Welke, founder of Zealyst, told me, “If there isn’t a connection available, don’t be afraid to reach out directly.” Welke always makes time to meet with people interested in startups or technology, particularly if they’ve taken the time to learn about her company and have prepared informed questions. “A great initial conversation helps build a strong foundation for long-term mentorship.”
“It can be scary and you will feel vulnerable, but, ask yourself, ‘What could it hurt?’” advised Autumn Lerner, Group Manager at Weber Shandwick. “I sincerely believe that human beings want to support each other. It feels good to be a guide, a coach, a mentor, and it is an honor to be asked. So embrace your fear and let it be your guide.”
Chances are good your mentor is also mentoring others in the community. “You might meet with them once a month or twice a year, but make the most of the opportunity and be grateful,” Lerner suggested. Be honest with your mentor about your challenges and goals. “I mean, really, how can your mentor truly support you if they don’t know what you really want?”
Mentorship is a dynamic process, as both mentors and mentees will inevitably change, “So the relationship should evolve to accommodate that,” Welke notes.
These relationships often become mutually beneficial. Serena Cosgrove explained that, as a professor at Seattle University, she has many opportunities to mentor young people, “But now, my former students are mentoring and helping me. Former students now working on issues of international development are great resources for my research and current students.”
In fact, one of the surest ways to find a mentor is to become a mentor yourself. Be it advising a co-worker, taking an active interest in an employee, meeting with a college student to help them make career choices or reaching out to a child in your family or community. You can’t know what the ultimate impact of these efforts will be, for your mentee or yourself.
Eleanor Roosevelt famously wrote that “What you are in life results in great part from the influence exerted on you over the years by just a few people.” Which explains why I’m so looking forward to this Speed Mentorship event: 35 young female professionals and 35 leadership level women just may walk away with one of those few people.