3 ways to be a better mentor

Giving your mentee a leg up may seem harmless, but this practice can actually disadvantage historically underrepresented groups, reports B.R.J. O'Donnell for The Atlantic.

According to Katherine Milkman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, today's networking environment can harm the professional development of women and minorities.

In 2012, Katherine Milkman co-authored a study investigating the role of race and gender in academic advancement, writes O'Donnell. Researchers sent emails to more than 6,000 professors asking to discuss their research. All the emails were identical—except for one slight difference.

The emails were sent using 20 different names that may be associated with a particular race or gender, explains O'Donnell. Milkman's study found that responses varied based on the perceived race and gender of the fictional candidates, O'Donnell notes. This suggests that women and minorities face barriers to setting up mentoring relationships, she writes.

In conversation with O'Donnell, Milkman identifies three best practices for mentors hoping to eliminate bias from their network.

1: Check for stereotypes

The most harmful biases are stereotypes that unintentionally shape the kind of advice you offer to mentees, says Milkman.

For example, if you offer an opportunity to one mentee, Milkman recommends taking a moment to understand why you're not offering that guidance to any of your other mentees. From there, you can figure out if your decision is based on a stereotype or a true distinction between your mentees' interests, she says.

Also see: Six roles for faculty in student success

2: Watch out for micro-inequities

According to Milkman, micro-inequities are small setbacks, like a lack of encouragement or opportunities, that can have a large impact on a person's career over time. Unchallenged and constant micro-inequities can lead to fewer women and minorities in the talent pipeline, she notes.

3: Pay more attention to underrepresented groups in your network

Mentorship generally involves connecting our mentees with helpful opportunities, notes Milkman. But lending someone a helping hand gives him or her an advantage over others who may be competing for the same opportunity, she says.

That doesn't mean you should stop helping those in your network, clarifies Milkman. Instead, recognize that helping those in your network may mean hurting those outside of it, she explains.

She recommends offsetting this effect by expanding your network to include more underrepresented groups, like women, minorities, and first-generation students, and understanding why it is especially important to help them.

Milkman's rule of thumb? Do three times as much for underrepresented individuals than you normally would, she says (O'Donnell, The Atlantic, 9/15).

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