Inclusive Mentoring: how to connect more women with mentors in male-dominated workplaces

Jennifer Petrela is a mentoring expert at Mentorship Quebec, a Mentorship Accelerator supported by the Quebec government that helps companies attract, integrate and retain a greater number of women through the power of mentorship. In this discussion, Jennifer covers Inclusive Mentoring and how to connect more women with mentors in male-dominated workplaces.
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Brittany: Hi, Jennifer, and thank you so much for joining us today for our discussion. To kick things off, I'd love to give an introduction to anyone who's listening today. Jennifer Petrela is a mentoring expert at Mentorship Quebec, a mentorship accelerator supported by the Quebec government that helps companies attract, integrate, and retain a greater number of women through the power of mentorship. In addition to mentorship Quebec, Jennifer has also led a mentoring program for over seven years at the P Elliot Trudeau Foundation here in Canada. Jennifer is recognized as a specialist in starting mentoring programs that promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. When she's not championing mentorship as a force for good, she herself is a mentor and mentee describing it as a constant evolution. Jennifer has taken the time and of her busy schedule today to discuss the topic, inclusive mentoring, how to connect more women with mentors in a male dominated workspace. Thank you so much for joining us today, Jennifer.

Jennifer Petrela: Thank you for the invitation.

Brittany: To help us learn a little more about you and your background, can you share with us how you developed your career and what led you to become a specialist in launching mentorship programs?

Jennifer Petrela: Yeah, so I think that my career kind of followed my passions, which are in part for social justice. So I worked for the labor union, I worked for the environmental movement also. But when you see the transformative powers of mentorship, I guess if you see the transformative powers of any kind of field that you're in, I happen to see it in mentorship and it was so impressive that I just couldn't resist delving further. I think there's a lot more to be done. I think that in Canadian society, certainly we don't have an instinct really to, we're not trained up to kind of search out opportunities to give each other a heads up to actually go out and reach out to somebody else and see what they might need. Sometimes, it's a very simple thing. It can be an introduction, it can be listening to somebody. There's all kinds of opportunities for mentorship in day to day life, Brittany, that we don't take advantage of. And then in professional life, it makes just as much of a difference. So, I guess I got bitten by that bug and I just haven't like, oh, since.

Brittany: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And I can completely relate to your point, like mentoring itself seems like a simple concept, but it can be very challenging to actually find someone to be your mentor or to mentee or your mentee, vice versa. Why do you feel like mentorship is important within organizations?

Jennifer Petrela: So, I think it's important for a number of reasons. I think that it's a really great shortcut and I think that one of the things that I like best about mentorship is that the benefits are not, are bidirectional. If you were to, you know, you could throw a new employee, for example, a manual and they could read everything. But, you know, when somebody's experience at a company, for example, helps somebody else, their mentee, then they themselves start to look at their own trajectory differently. They start to develop communication stills. They start to develop perhaps empathy in the case when the parties are different from each other. It's a whole level of exposure that we don't get in day to day life. You know, the way we learn most when we're with other people, the way I learn most is when I do a project with them. Right? And so if I'm doing this project where I'm actually having to understand the other person, all of a sudden my mind gets a lot more open. I see different ways of doing things, different approaches, different mindsets and it just makes me a more flexible and adaptable person in my own life. So, the double benefits are kind of irresistible.

Brittany: Yeah, definitely. That's a great point. From your experience, working with companies who are starting mentoring programs, what do you find to be the most common reasons that they end up launching a mentoring program?

Jennifer Petrela: It's very interesting. So, it used to be that companies who are doing it a lot for, sometimes for integration, sometimes for retention. Now they're doing it more and more for attraction, you know, so there's more and more demand questions. People who are, you know, in the job market that's very tight, are looking for some kind of guarantee that they're not just going to be thrown somewhere and forgotten, but they're actually going to be able to develop their career. And everybody knows by now, and not everybody, but more and more people are aware, specifically younger generations, that mentorship is a great heads up. You know, it saves you so much time and energy. So companies are also doing it as an attraction mechanism.

Brittany: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And that's definitely consistent with what we've experienced. More and more there's studies that generations like Gen Z, who are newer to the workforce actually demand mentoring as like something that they want from their employer and that does make a big impact in terms of where they choose to start their career. So, it's interesting that you've sort of seen that in a wild, because that's definitely what we found in, in our own research and even within some of our customers too.

Jennifer Petrela: But, you know, I would add to that also, because I'm finding also something that we're noticing here in Montreal anyway, is that in certain fields there's a real gap between educational training that people can get at university or at some kind of school. For example, like here we have a very large video game industry and then what it's like to actually work, for example, in a video game studio like, completely different, different pace, different levels of demands, different everything, working in a team, all this kind of stuff that one doesn't necessarily get to do in the school room setting. And so we also have employers’ associations saying, you know, their members are saying, look, we need help on boarding these people. How can we do this? Of course, mentoring is a great way to do that.

Brittany: Yeah, definitely. For sure. I completely agree. Onboarding itself is reason enough to have a mentor and at any point in your career transition, but probably particularly important when you're beginning your career. And you brought up a great point around the video game industry. I think that ties quite nicely to our topic of mentoring women within male dominated workplaces, which I think we can all agree the video game industry has been historically. As we jump into that topic, can you start by explaining to anyone who's listening what inclusive mentoring is?

Jennifer Petrela: Yeah. So inclusive mentoring is a kind of mentoring that doesn't ignore differences of identity. It's a kind of mentoring that doesn't say, look, we're going to offer this mentorship program to everybody. We're going to teach them the exact same things, and we're going to hope that it benefits people who are part of marginalized groups or underrepresented groups as much as it does members of a majority group. Inclusive mentoring recognizes that to not take into account differences like that are actually perpetuate the inequality that exists. So, that's the negative definition. The positive definition would be a mentorship program that actually validates and encourages people of marginalized groups so that they have the same opportunities as people of majority groups. And part of that is a really big education piece because people sometimes think that this is the same debate about equality and equity that's been going on, you know, for hundreds of years. Same thing where a firm mode of action used to be considered discriminatory in favor of underprivileged people. In fact, it simply levels the playing field. So, if we were to take a mentoring program that makes no account of differences of identity, no accounts of differences of power, and just implant that, then what we're doing is we're not starting from a neutral place. We're starting from a place that disadvantages people of marginalized groups and advantages people who are not part of marginalized groups. So we're actually now starting from neutral. We're actually starting from a place of perpetuating injustice. And it's a very interesting concept, Brittany, because we can't be neutral. We have to pick, and inclusive mentoring says we're going to pick the kind of approach that validates and encourages people and brings them up to the same level of advantage. 

Brittany: Mm-Hmm. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I agree with you. And can you speak a bit to the like the benefits of inclusive mentoring program and what type of changes you might see in an organization if you were to start a program that's focused on this?

Jennifer Petrela: So, I mean, there's all kinds of changes, you know, that depend on your indicators, right? So, things like, you know, women in leadership positions, promotions of women, number of women who don't drop out after a few years of the company so it kind of depends on what people are aiming for. All of those indicators are valid. The mechanisms of the benefits are interesting because what happens with inclusive mentorship is, for one, you kind of work on several levels at, you know, in a best case scenario, you work on the individual level where you're helping that one person, your mentee, you know, rise, get over obstacles, see opportunities, stuff like that. Ideally, you're working at a group level where that mentee feels, you know, doesn't feel that they're the only member of their identity group, but has other people around them who, and the, the important point here is not that they're with members of the same group, but research is showing that what's important is that they feel that they're being understood as a member of their particular group. So as long as their obstacles or circumstances are being understood, it doesn't really matter if they're the only one of their identity, which is a very validating finding. And then the third level is the systemic level. So, you know, in a best case scenario, the mentor doesn't just help that one person. The mentor takes back information that they've learned about, about the obstacles facing that one person and makes changes at the systemic level. If they're in the same company, then they can perhaps bring those changes to their company, and if not, they can bring it to the industry or some other sphere that they're active in. You really want change at these three levels.

Brittany: Okay. That makes sense. My next question actually, you spoke to a little bit but it was around like, should men mentor women, should mentors be from the same background as mentees? It sounds like from what you shared, it matters more that they understand the experience. Is that correct?

Jennifer Petrela: Yeah, that's what the research shows, which is very encouraging because otherwise you have a situation where the same overworked members of a certain group are also tasked with mentoring members of their group, which is not sustainable. And the other advantage of it is that you know, people who are in positions of privilege, if they're equipped to mentor inclusively, then they can perhaps use their privilege to advance their mentee. And I'm talking here specifically about sponsorship. Now there are different schools of thought about whether a mentor can also sponsor their mentee, should they, shouldn't they, you know, we could debate that. But you know, one school of thought is that mentorship is actually not enough. When you have people who are in a position of, you know, who have positions of less power and they don't have access to the same powerful networks as people who are part of that, of that group. Well, I'm going on a tangent here, but we replicate, we replicate the systems that we're in unless we make a deliberate effort to change those systems. So, if we go ahead and mentor people who look exactly like us, then we're probably going to be able to share with them only the power and privilege that we have, right, which is an argument for people who have more power to help people who have less, or to mentor them and to sponsor them, to give them opportunities to vouch for them. Things like that. 

Brittany: Yeah. That makes sense. I imagine if you are a program admin listening to this conversation, you might be wondering like, how do I find those people within my organization? In some ways, it could almost be easier to set up a program where women mentor other women, because that's something that, you know, in HR, you would have that information on all of your employees. But if the school of thought is more so on trying to find people who are a good fit to mentor diverse employees, how can someone in HR really find those mentors and build a program around that?

Jennifer Petrela: Yeah, so I think a really big important piece of this is training, right? So, I think that we really want to train our mentors because, and for two reasons. Number one, they'll be a better mentor, and number two, they'll be a better employee and better kind of colleague all around. Having said that, I did some research on this a couple years ago and wrote an article on it. The best practices actually are that we let the mentee choose. Okay? Because there can be mentees needs evolve. And it could be that at a certain point in their career, they need to have somebody whom they can use as a model, who has same identities, shares similar identities to theirs, and then there could be another point of their career where they actually want to see something from a different point of view, or they no longer need a model or whatever. Or else they're looking for different kinds of connections. You know, the best kinds of networks, you know, according to network research is networks that are broad and deep. So, broad meaning different people from different spheres, different generations, different industries, and deep, certain number of those that are deep. So not just superficial contacts, but more meaningful ones. And so it's a little bit the same thing in mentorship. You know, we're seeing more and more studies saying now, you know, actually maybe just having one mentor isn't enough, you know? Either we have successive mentors, different ones successively quickly, or else we have a couple at the same time, but we don't expect one mentor to fill all needs and we recognize that needs can evolve.

Brittany: Yeah, definitely. That's actually consistent with what we call evergreen mentoring. So, many of our customers choose this model where the mentee can at any point kind of select from a directory and have any like, number of mentoring sessions that they would like with the mentor who's best suited for that topic. And we usually see that admins choose a mentee led matching process, where they are given, let's say the five best mentors that see what they're looking to learn, and then the mentee selects from that short list. So, there's some intelligence behind who's being served up as an option, but the mentee is really choosing who they want to learn from, and then the mentor also buys in. So there's, you know, that double buy in on both sides, which has proven to be the most successful format for us. So that makes a lot of sense and I think validates a lot of what you've shared. How would a program admin go about starting a mentoring program in the workplace? What would be your advice in terms of first steps, best practices to keep in mind, things like that?

Jennifer Petrela: Yeah, so that's a great question. I mean, you know, I'm sure that you advise this together, Brittany, like the first one probably is, you know, to consult your data and to consult your target groups, right? So we wouldn't want to go in and decide, you know, who needs mentors and a webs page of their career and everything. We would make some focus groups or find some other way to kind of consult. We could, you know, and data can be useful. So, you know, I mentioned earlier there's integration, there's retention, there's promotion. You know, are we having difficulty at one of these levels attracting people, who are staying in progressing? Cause then we can maybe target those groups. You know, having said that, so once we figure out our public, you know, our target groups and our objectives and things like that, a really good question to ask in those conversations is, is mentorship the best way to achieve the objective? Okay. So we have kind of like a continuum of questions around this. You know, some people don't consider mentorship at all. They consider like diversity training or something else. Some people only consider mentorship, some people consider mentorship as one, as a tool in a toolbox. It doesn't mean that, you know, you have to throw up five different programs all at the same time but the concept would be to keep critical thinking, you know, is mentorship the best? Okay. So maybe I'll try mentorship program for a year and see how it does and, you know, see how popular it is and things like that. I just said for a year, the pilot program thing is a good idea for an admin to think of, right? So like, give themselves a learning mentality, not put too much pressure, allow room for it to evolve. You know, perhaps half of it is great, the mentees mentors love it and then the other half, they don't like it all. So this kind of incremental approach.

Brittany: Yeah, definitely. And when someone were to like start a pilot program, let's say, how long do you think is enough to really gauge if it's successful? And do you think, like is there a certain number of people that need to be involved to get a good understanding? Do you have any advice on pilot programs specifically?

Jennifer Petrela: Yeah. So in my experience, you don't want less than maybe 15 dyads if you go in the dyad route.

Brittany: Okay. 

Jennifer Petrela: Keep in mind that, you know, one out of 15, something's going to happen to somebody, they're going to have a family crisis or something's going to happen, you know, and this is normal, you know, one or two maybe, you know, in COVID or something. So then you can work with the others. That to me is like a floor and I don't know that you'd want to go above 30 for a pilot program, 30 dyads of 60 people, because what you really want to do when you're starting a pilot program is built in some pretty good evaluation.

Brittany: Yep. That makes a lot of sense.

Jennifer Petrela: You know, further down the road, you can perhaps move to automated evaluation, that kind of stuff, but probably for the pilot program, you're going to want to do some interviews, some qualitative research, stuff like that to see how well it's going. Yeah, so that, and then as to duration, from what I see from the research, like six to nine months is kind of a sweet spot, and you have to consider also that, you know, usually around December, people drop off for a month, maybe, you know, traveling and stuff. And in the summer, sometimes they do too. Not always, not in every industry, but seven months I would say is a good sturdy amount that will allow you to start evaluating.

Brittany: Okay. That makes sense. That's quite similar to what we've seen. We see most people start at around six months as a pilot, depending on the format that you choose to go with mentoring. As I mentioned before, if you were to do like more of an evergreen format where there isn't, you know, start date and end date, it's more always on where people seek out mentors or mentees, that might be different. But yeah, I agree with you. I'd say the most common thing we see is around six months as a pilot. Great. Well, we're just about at time here. As a final question, I'd love to see or ask if you have any final advice for anyone that might be listening that's looking to sort a mentoring program or make a change in their organization to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion?

Jennifer Petrela: Yeah, so I guess my only parting advice, Brittany, would be coming back to what I said at the beginning, like there's no real neutral spot here. So, we all are going to have to try. And part of beautiful thing about a mentorship program is that one leaves room for learning. Learning at one's own pace and all that kind of thing. And it's tricky because nobody wants to be exclusive and if we engage in diversity work, we will find out that we are excluding on some marker of identity that we didn't even think about. This is a promise. So, to go in knowing that and we go in knowing that, we're going to try anyway, I really don't think that we can fail. The worst that can happen is we learn some lessons we need to learn.

Brittany: Yep. That's great advice. Thank you, Jennifer. Awesome. Well, really appreciate your time today. I've really enjoyed this conversation. I'm sure anyone who's listening will feel the same. Thank you so much again for taking the time and chatting with us today.

Jennifer Petrela: Thank you, Brittany. Good luck.

Brittany: Thank you. Take care.