Saving a Seat at the Mentor Table - A Reflection on International Women's Day

Saving a Seat at the Mentor Table

Let’s get this out of the way – I think men are swell, the bee’s knees really. I am surrounded by some of the very best and I wouldn’t want a day of my life to be lived without them.

But today my thoughts are occupied by women and I don’t think it’s an us-against-them world. These reflections about the fairer sex are not shared as an opposition to men but a celebration of all the amazing things I have learned about being a woman and living my life surrounded by them. Today is about pressing forward. It’s about progress. It’s about a community of women lifting up other women.

I was blessed with three grandmothers in my life – one by blood and two by the grace of God.

My earliest memories of Martha are in her sewing room. She had a needle holder in the shape of a tomato that sat by her stacks of fabric. There was a twin bed in the room where I would flip and flop about asking her endless questions about her plans. “Is that dress for me? Can I have the fabric with the sailboats for my next dress? If there’s any extra, can you make a dress for Blue Baby too, so we can match?”

I met this grandmother when I was two years old and she scooped me into her life and never let go. Watching her, I learned about openness and hospitality. Everyone was welcome, and she knew how to make you feel at ease with her infectious laughter. I learned about female friendships on my outings with her and Sally Bird to the Iris Room at Cain Sloan’s department store. I modeled her elegant Southern manners on our trip to the Belle Meade Cafeteria. I remember the record player in her bedroom, with the long drop and the swing of the arm to play “Hey Jude” over and over (my request, not hers). She never shooed me off my perch in her bathroom when she was getting ready – I was fascinated by her make-up and endless perfume bottles. I can still remember the coolness of the countertop as I watched her ‘put on her face’.

Ivy Jean came into my life with a bang.

Larger than life, she sometimes wore wigs, loved Elvis Presley and resembled Dolly Parton. She was rarely far from the kitchen (unless her ‘stories’ were on) and she, too, welcomed everyone with open arms.

I met this grandmother when I was six years old. My mother would marry her son a few years later and I would take on their last name not long after. We lived next door and I beat down a path to her front door. She would take me to work with her at the local dry cleaner and let me ‘work’ the cash register. Always a bit of a bossy pants, I would insist on playing lawyer and she would serve as the judge – I always seemed to win my cases. She made the best cornbread, biscuits, sausage balls and apple cake. She instilled in me a love of sitting in the sun and I will never forget the sweat on the glass of her amazing sweet tea in the mornings and later in the day, her wine glass.

Anne was always there because she gave the world my mother. Unlike my other two emphatically Southern grandmothers, she hailed from the North and held fast to her austere roots.

I got to really know this grandmother when I was nineteen. Epilepsy was a condition she couldn’t outsmart or negotiate, and she found herself under strict orders from her doctors not to drive for a period of six months while they got her medications regulated. I happened to be a college student around the corner at Belmont University and I became her driver. I realized we shared a voracious love of books and I learned about her time advancing her own education, holding two master’s degrees from Tennessee State University and Peabody College. We went to church together at Vine Street Christian Church on West End and even after she didn’t need me to drive her anymore, I went by myself (but to the later service because college students aren’t at their best early in the morning).

From each I took a trait, a lesson, a recipe and made it my own. These were my first mentors even if I didn’t know it at the time.

Mentors are the leaders of our lives’ crossroads. Like the ones holding the flag for a massive group trying to negotiate Disney, we sign up for their navigation. They can help us look beyond short-term decisions. They challenge us to see more – more of ourselves, more in others, more possibilities. But we are in the middle of a mentor crisis for women right now.

At the Golden Globes this year Oprah shared a powerful memory of being a little girl and watching Sidney Poitier accept his Academy Award many years before. Seeing someone that looked like her achieve so much was a pivotal moment, revealing a path she had not seen before. Not an easy path, but a path nonetheless.

Seeing the path is powerful. Many women are still searching for their path and there are certainly more they can follow today than ever before. We are earning 57% of all bachelor’s degrees, 60% of master’s degrees, and more than half all doctorate degrees. We are almost half of the U.S labor force (47%) but we are hard to find as the org chart narrows toward the top… Women represent only 4% of Fortune 500 CEOs, hold only 17% of Fortune 500 board seats, and a paltry 15% of the Fortune 500 executive officer positions (Source: Catalyst, 2014).

How can we expect the few at the top to mentor the many below? We have a supply and demand issue on our hands – a mentor famine for women.

For many reasons, we can’t place the burden of this issue on the women that have successfully navigated the leadership labyrinth and made it to the top. First of all, they are likely tired. That’s a long journey and now that they’ve made it, the weight of the work is heavy. To place the future of women’s advancement at their doorstep is too much. Let them determine their own capacity to coach and pass down wisdom but do not make that your first stop on the mentor search. Secondly, what worked for them will not necessarily serve the women ascending the ranks today. What they had to do and sacrifice may not be the ticket to the top tomorrow. These rules likely aren’t the ones that future female leaders are willing to play by so the game plan will be adjusted.

If the rules need to be amended, then the voice of the collective group needs to bring that to the leadership floor. Scouting for a mentor will look different today…

  1. Stop looking for mentors at work. You likely have people that you are learning from every day, organically. Setting aside time for additional interaction will likely yield marginal results. You have the luxury of learning from their actions – that’s already paying huge dividends. Take the lessons and move on.
  2. Mentors can be at your same level. I would suggest you just find them at a different location. Being at a similar point in life is powerful. You are navigating the labyrinth at the same time under the same conditions. Mentor each other.
  3. Create mentor groups. We so often think of mentoring as this one-way transfer of wisdom between two people when in reality, mentoring is really a culmination of many different interactions. Building this opportunity to glean knowledge from multiple people is a key to success. Invite two people you respect and ask them to invite two people and then go to dinner together. Set the rules early for transparency and confidentiality (knowing both may take time to develop and be earned). Dedicate yourself to cultivating this group, especially in times when you are in a comfortable place. When you need them the most, you will have already put in the work.
  4. Mentors can be men. We have divided styles of leadership by gender instead of traits but some of the leaders I related to and learned from the most held non-traditional ‘male’ leadership qualities while still clearly being men. Conversely, I have been paired with female mentors who exhibited such high levels of aggression and a need for dominance that not only did I not learn from them or want to emulate them, I was actually repelled by them. Look for people that embody your values and desired characteristics, not heels versus loafers.
  5. Be a mentor. Nothing will prepare you more for getting the most out of being a mentee than being a mentor to others. Learning to listen, to leave your own story at the door and focus on the path of someone else will teach you to build an authentic relationship with your own mentors.

For generations we have looked to the wisdom of those who’ve gone before us to find our path. But when the path is still rocky and full of obstacles, we have to link arms with the other women on the path and press forward.

Today we celebrate the accomplishments and progress made by women. We can see how much has changed and we can see the changes to come. We must also press on to continue to progress…

We must draw closer to each other. We must seek out the women who can teach us and those we can teach. To end this mentor famine, open the door and invite each other in. Fill the seats at the table with grandmothers and mothers and young women. Serve up your best biscuits and then let’s go bulldoze the path together.

  • Julia Loew
    Posted at 00:50h, 08 March Reply

    Really great post Jess! Insightful, emotional and educational. Loved it my friend! Hope all is well.

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