Mentoring and The Sounds of Silence

For at least a decade, women’s bar associations, universities, and other institutions have been producing reports trying to explain and rectify the lack of women and minorities in top positions such as partners in law firms or full professors in universities (especially within the sciences, technology, and engineering). Although the actual number of women and minorities within law firms and university faculties is improving only at a snail’s pace, there is consensus regarding how such institutions can attract and retain women and minorities. At least one component of all of these reports is an emphasis on the importance of having a mentor. Yet virtually none of these reports discuss in any detail what it means to be a good mentor or how one becomes a good mentor. In its most dilute form, mentoring means an occasional lunch outside of the office and dozens of internet articles on mentoring are at best trite.

I now find myself a mentor of both students and junior faculty and I am often at a loss in how to be a good mentor. In my twenty-three year career that has spanned being in a private law firm, in-house, and then the university, no one has ever spoken to me about what mentoring means. In those cases where I feel most competent as a mentor my relationships have grown organically over time. I silently and slowly become a mentor. Even more surprising to me is that some of my strongest mentoring relationships are with male students despite the fact that my scholarship focuses on women and gender and many students know me from presentations that I give about women in law school.

There has long been a sense that women are not as good as male mentors yet there is no evidence for this, nor do I even have a way to compare myself to others — men or women. This opinion regarding women mentors is of course a vast over generalization but there may be some tidbits of truth in it. Women, including myself, may feel that they do not have the cultural capital, the connections, or the power that more senior men possess. I sometimes worry that I am short changing the students that I mentor.

I have been fortunate to have had wonderful mentors both men and women but the mentoring relationship is not often publicly visible or even discussed. At times, I had no idea whether someone was mentoring me or whether they were simply doing their job and wished that I would leave them alone. At other times, I looked to people that I thought were mentors who instead saw me as a friend or worse yet made the mistake of interpreting my interest as an indication that I desired a romantic relationship. Looking back on my past, I can now see that some of my professors were offering mentorship but I did not recognize it as such. Even today students reach out to me but I do not know whether they are seeking limited advice or a longer-term relationship. Sometimes I think that a student is seeking a mentor but I never hear from that student again. Have they rejected my mentorship? Have I misinterpreted their intentions or have I somehow conveyed that I was uninterested? At other times, I seem to have lost my own mentors and I harbor a perpetual sense that I have fatally disappointed them. Worse of all I do not know how to discuss any of these questions openly.

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