An unequal relationship? Power and mentoring

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The relationship between mentor and mentee is - with regard to power - by definition an asymmetrical one. The mentor "holds" power in the sense that she has the knowledge, experience and professional network that the mentee "needs" in order to achieve her goals. This unequal power relation is further enhanced when the mentor is a member of the majority community while the mentee belongs to a minority.

In KVINFO's Mentor Network we are much aware of these inequalities in position, and we try to empower the participants to create a relation that embraces equality, solidarity, and exchange. We acknowledge that mentoring is premised on a top-down construction, but we do also strongly believe that it can be dealt with, and that the imbalances of power in the mentoring relation are leveled over time.

Is this wishful thinking or can mentoring relations be construed in a way that effectively deals with these imbalances in power? What is the opinion of theory on this matter? Please tell us your opinion - be it experienced or researched - on this dilemma?

- posted by KVINFO's Mentor Network 09.07.09

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I couldn't agree more. The

I couldn't agree more. The relationship between mentor and mentee definitely is with regard to power - by definition an asymmetrical one.

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Power and unequal

Power is only an issue, if you want to enforce something. And since the mentor/mentee relationship is based on a volontary basis and on a dialoque learning process with the best of intentions, I cannot see the problem.
I am also surprised, that you use the word unequal about the relationship between mentor and mentee. That is the whole idea about the concept. If the two persons were equal, then there would be no learning process for neither.
For me the idea of being a mentor is, that you have something valuable to offer another person, and that you are prepared to share it free of charge.
The reality fortunately confirms, that the personal meeting often is a fruitfull learning process for both mentor and mentee and is a an almost build in positive side effect.

Power imbalance in the mentoring relationship

This is an issue that was recognized very early when The Mentoring Partnership program was being designed. So we set out quite deliberately to position this as a "peer mentoring" model. All materials produced in the program underline the fact that skiiled immigrants who are "mentees" in the program are often as accomplished professionally as their mentors. The only difference being that the mentees' gained their experience outside of Canada.

The mentor orientation prior to the start of the mentoring relationship also emphasizes the quality of education and experience of the mentees. The power imbalance cannot disappear but there are deliberate elements that can be included in program design that address this imbalance.

Mentoring among migrant and refugee women

In Australia, and particularly in Victoria where we are based, our women's coalition is engaged more predominantly in a mentoring process where mentors and mentees are migrant and refugee women. Mentors are migrant and refugee women who have earlier established themselves in the country and mentees are the newly arrived. In this situation, there isn't much of a power imbalance. I'd say it's more about the mentor having more advantage for having stayed longer in their new home and has gained more wisdom and knowledge to impart to her mentee. We find this model of mentoring very effective in developing the self-esteem of the mentees. Likewise, the mentor's self-esteem is enhanced because of the feeling of accomplishment and affirmation she gets from the relationship.

Posted by Melba Marginson, Victorian Immigrant and Refugee Women's Coalition

Managing power difference in the learning conversation

It’s inevitable that both mentor and mentee will be influenced in how they approach conversations, by the relative differences in authority, power, age and so on. For example, they may be overly deferential, or alternatively overly aggressive.

As a mentor, you can help a mentee settle into positive behaviours and a relaxed style of conversation by:

- Being very open at the beginning of the relationship about:
~ Your learning objectives
~ Your concerns about how you think and behave, with
regard to people, who are different. (One mentor told his
mentee: “I suspect I’m probably a lot more racist than I
like to think I am. But I’ve had no safe way of finding out
till now. I’m hoping you’ll help me uncover some of the
ways I think unconsciously, so I can address them.”)
~ Your concerns and fears about the mentoring relationship
- Being clear that you want this to be a conversation of equals. Ask them to tell you when they feel you are dominating the conversation. (In a typical mentoring relationship, 80% of the talking would be expected from the mentee.)
- Being aware of and avoiding managerial behaviours that re-assert the hierarchy – for example, closing down a topic peremptorily, or making them wait for your scheduled meeting together
- Paying attention to your language. Does it suggest listening, or telling?
- Paying attention to your posture: Does it encourage both of you to relax. (But don’t follow the example of one manager, who took his shoes off and put his feet on the table. He was surprised to learn that far from relaxing the other person, it made them feel uncomfortable and inferior!)
- Paying attention to their posture. Visual and vocal clues to discomfort are equally powerful.
- Choosing a meeting location that doesn’t emphasise your authority. (E.g. not your office or your club!)
- Demonstrating a clear interest in what they have to say.

Spend time at the beginning of each meeting sharing experiences since you last met. These can be both related to the relationship purpose and unrelated.
- Seeking and valuing their opinion
- Accepting feedback gratefully – most people
would be too scared to be so honest to you
- Using humour – enough to lighten the mood
- Leaving enough time to get to grips with issues. Said one mentee: “We’d have a good conversation of equals and it was all enjoyable. Then he’d glance at his watch and for the last few minutes I’d see him gradually step back into his “normal” managerial mode, in preparation for his next meeting. I sometimes left feeling dismissed. It rankled, because it made the conversation before seem artificial.”
- Between sessions, communicating personally, not through a secretary
- Building the power issue into periodic relationship reviews:
~When has each of you felt most and least comfortable in
the conversations?
~When you felt uncomfortable, where was the power?

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