Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Problem with Mentorship

Fortune has a story on "The New Valley Girls" -- Silicon Valley's ladies with power, drive, and ambition. The story seems to focus on the idea that these women aren't using social media to network.
The clock has just struck seven on a Thursday night, and Sheryl Sandberg is networking furiously. Not on Facebook, the site she joined in March as COO and where she boasts 1,114 "friends." No, she's doing it the old-fashioned way, in her Atherton, Calif., living room. She hosts her Silicon Valley soirees a few times a year, and it's always the A-list crowd.
The fact that these women rely on traditional face-to-face networking doesn't come much as a surprise to me. It also doesn't surprise me that women in a field dominated by men have a desire to gather and talk to each other about their problems and failings.

One point that I did find interesting was that these women -- by no accident -- find mentorship from men:
Similarly, Facebook's Sandberg says that her mentors have been men. The first key man in her life, besides her ophthalmologist father, was Larry Summers, who taught her economics her junior year at Harvard. "She wasn't one of my students who raised her hand all the time, but when the midterm came, she got the best grade by some margin," recalls Summers, who went on to be her thesis advisor.
Women do find comfort in talking to one another, but in the male-dominated world of Silicone Valley, they often need to find men to take them on as protegees or they may end up with no mentorship at all. In fact, many of the more successful women in political journalism I know do have male mentors. This can be awkward, like in the recent Newsweek piece on sexism in the office, in which a young female employee admits feeling uncomfortable with casual conversation with male colleagues in the office.
One young colleague recalls being teased about the older male boss who lingered near her desk. "What am I supposed to do with that? Assume that's the explanation for any accomplishments? Assume my work isn't valuable?" she asks. "It gets in your head, which is the most insidious part."
I think it makes male colleagues uncomfortable as well. They want to be helpful without coming across as creepy. But the notion of men and women as not being friends can be so ingrained with some people that that power dynamic is hard to navigate. The best advice I can give to my male colleagues and friends who desire to provide mentorship but don't want to come across as creepy, all I can say is this: Just don't be creepy. Acknowledge when you're trying to help and be clear about the fact that you're not trying to make them uncomfortable.


Theresa Muir said...

Silicon Valley. Silicone's that stuff that used to go into boobs.

Kay Steiger said...

You're so right! Thanks for the catch.

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