Social policy | The Pacific

7 August 2020

Understanding how mentoring programs transfer to Pacific contexts is crucial to the future of women’s leadership in the region, write Elise Howard, Julien Barbara and Sonia Palmieri.

Women are significantly underrepresented in leadership in organisational and political contexts across the globe, including in Pacific Island countries. Mentoring is a much-touted solution to this problem, particularly in public sector and corporate governance settings. It is often positioned as a core component of professional leadership training in contexts as diverse as sports, politics and academia, and a significant body of literature has been dedicated to the success or otherwise of mentorship programs in these contexts.

The translation of mentoring in a development context to support women’s leadership has received much less academic (and development practitioner) attention. However, the dearth of literature has not stemmed the enthusiasm for mentoring as a mechanism to support women’s leadership in this context — in politics, academia, government, or the private sector — often designed with untested and unrealistic expectations of what mentoring can achieve.

Our comparison of mentoring research with mentoring practices in Pacific contexts shows that four key assumptions have been made in the transposition of mentoring from developed country and corporate contexts to developing country contexts.

Assumption 1: Different backgrounds do not matter in a mentoring relationship

In the last seven years, donor-funded mentoring programs have matched Pacific Island women mentees with Australian women mentors. Mentor matching is a formal process with an explicit intent to develop a mentoring relationship between mentees and people who are deemed to be an appropriately matched mentor. Bases for mentor and mentee matching might include perceived similarities in career pathways and aspirations, and/or shared experiences of marginalisation or discrimination.

For example, women mentors and mentees are often matched based on the assumption that the shared lived experience of being a woman will provide the most beneficial foundation for a mentoring relationship. However, identity and experiences of discrimination are multifaceted, and a mentee’s identity as a woman cannot be separated from her cultural identity, her experiences of class difference, or the legacies of colonisation.

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Mentor matching where mentors have limited experiences of a mentee’s cultural and social context have the potential to be counterproductive. Mentors often come from positions of advantage or privilege, while their mentees often continue to face various forms of marginalisation.

The findings of youth development programs that match mentors and mentees of different ethnicities and socio-economic categories are illustrative in that they draw attention to the assumption that exposure to ‘successful, middle-class, adult volunteers’ is enough in itself to bring about change in the mentees’ contexts. These programs fail to recognise the power imbalances that can occur in mentor matching across cultural and/or socio-economic boundaries, and the potential for these power imbalances to reinforce stereotypes.

Questions remain about whether it is more beneficial for mentees to be matched with mentors of similar gender, socio-economic, educational or cultural statuses. Appropriate matches will depend on a mentee’s perceptions of their identity, the size of their community or workplace, and their goals. At a practical level, mentor matching also needs to account for geography and distance. Open communication, understanding and trust are fundamental to the success of mentoring relationships, which tend to thrive through opportunities for face-to-face interaction.

Rather than assuming that a shared gender or career pathway will provide a relevant basis for a mentoring relationship, mentoring programs instead need to step back and consider where they are likely to find appropriate mentors who have the relevant context and connections for the mentees’ goals. These findings point to the importance of a clear purpose to mentoring programs.

Assumption 2: Mentoring usually serves the same purpose

Mainstream mentoring literature divides mentoring purposes according to instrumental and developmental objectives. The purposes are not mutually exclusive and are best represented along a continuum (click here to see Figure 1).

Women tend to receive mentoring for the purposes of psychosocial support at the expense of intentional sponsorship for career progression. In addition, mentoring for women often focuses on assisting them to change and adapt to fit in with existing systems, which can detract from the need for collective efforts to challenge barriers to women’s success. The poor outcomes of many individual capacity-building programs have been linked to a focus on technical and knowledge gaps while ignoring the power and politics inherent in developmental challenges.

Therefore, the purpose of mentoring relationships will depend on a number of factors: the interests of the mentee, mentor and, in some circumstances, the agency sponsoring the mentoring relationship; a mentee’s level of agency and readiness for change; the mentor and mentee’s professional, family and community connections; and the knowledge, capabilities and connections the mentor brings to the relationship. A mentor who has particular experience related to confidence building and emotional support might be poorly placed to help a mentee pursue a complex policy objective.

Assumption 3: Mentoring strategies are the same everywhere and over time

As with purpose, mentoring strategies also need to be responsive to where an individual mentee is in their leadership development. A relatively inexperienced mentee may be seeking some enabling skills and confidence for leadership (for example, public speaking or project planning). As a mentee’s confidence builds, she may require different skills to critically question taken-for-granted aspects of her own and other people’s lives and formulate possible actions for creating change. The mentee’s experiences also have consequences for the type of mentoring required, be it facilitation and guidance around thinking and reflection, opportunities for exposure and practice, or encouragement to step outside personal and social boundaries and agitate for change.

Furthermore, women may be able to exercise leadership in some parts of their lives but not in others. Women typically have to regenerate their leadership credentials as they transition from one sector, space, context or domain to another, for example transitioning from leading in the church to leading in local government, or leading in the workplace to leading community change. Mentoring relationships also need to evolve as women seek to apply their leadership skills in different domains. At transition points, the continued relevance of the mentoring relationship should be questioned, as well as whether a different mentor is required.

Assumption 4: Workplace culture and structural barriers can be changed through the empowerment of individual women

Mentoring programs that support individual women to develop their leadership potential while temporarily outside their usual environment (for example while on scholarship or short-term visit to Australia) anticipate that skills learnt and relationships developed in Australia are transferrable to other contexts. Yet, individual capacity-building does not occur in a vacuum and needs to be complemented by a broad range of initiatives that engage with relevant structural and organisational factors inhibiting personal capacity.

Pacific women need to negotiate and secure a sufficient resource and support base to sustain their leadership, and this will require much more than a mentoring relationship. There are often unrealistic expectations about what mentoring can achieve, and the attribution of women’s success to mentoring is difficult given that mentoring programs tend to attract high achievers. Meaningful change is likely to engender resistance from those benefiting from the status quo.

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Effective change strategies require reformists to be able to analyse power relationships, anticipate points of resistance, identify entry points for change, and respond to the specific circumstances that frame the distribution of power. Mentoring can have the greatest impact when women are matched with a mentor who extends their legitimacy and power, or who is tapped into influential networks.

In applying lessons drawn from the literature on mentoring to those from the literature on developmental leadership, a number of policy recommendations arise. Mentoring programs should be complemented with broader efforts to change entrenched social norms and institutional barriers. They should facilitate regular introductions and other opportunities that enable potential mentors and mentees to come together, rather than defaulting to one-on-one mentor matching.

The needs and goals of each mentee and each mentor should be clearly articulated at the outset of the program, and support must be provided for mentoring relationships to develop. Mentors may need support to be able to critically challenge mentees and adequately support their leadership aspirations. Finally, mentoring should be understood as a long-term initiative.

This Policy Brief summarises key findings and lessons from research supported by the Australia Awards Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI). WLI offers emerging leaders from Pacific countries, who are Australia Awards recipients, skills development and mentoring opportunities to build leadership capability and boost gender equality. The aim of this Policy Brief is to inform policymakers and practitioners on themes and issues emerging from WLI’s work and to consider their implications for developmental leadership policy and practice more broadly.

This article is based upon a paper published by the ANU Department of Pacific Affairs (DPA) as part of its ‘Policy brief’ series. The original paper can be found here.

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