Birds of a Feather

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Picture of Danya Khoujah
Danya Khoujah
An emergency physician who is so fascinated by the science of teaching and learning that she completed a faculty development fellowship and a Master’s degree in Education in the Health Professions. Her interests include faculty development, mentoring, and bias in evaluation. In her free time, she loves to cook, travel, and eat.

The Pre-brief

Birds of a feather flock together…but, what if a mentee does not have someone “of their feather” to mentor them?

This is the reality of many institutions, departments, and hospitals. Senior faculty are not as diverse as students, trainees, and early-career faculty. It is not surprising that underrepresented minority (URM) groups are less likely to receive mentoring than their nonminority peers. Disparities in hiring, promotion, salary, research grants, etc between URM and their nonminority peers have been shown in many institutions, with the lack of mentoring implicated as an important factor. Therefore, the onus is on those with power to make a change. 

Regardless of your race, ethnicity, or gender, you can be part of the solution by making yourself available to mentor URM.

First: Understand the unique challenges faced by URM

Challenges faced by URM cannot be summarized in a paragraph or even an entire article, as each experience is unique. However, three important challenges to keep in mind are the following:

  • Marginalization
  • Overt and covert racism and sexism
  • Tokenism and cultural taxation, leading URM to carry a disproportionate share of activities that don’t advance their careers

Recognizing these challenges when discussing career advice and trajectories is essential to tailor the advice to the situation, as our perception of reality is affected by our prior experiences. 

Second: Recognize the barriers that may be present when pursuing this relationship

Non-minority faculty may be hesitant to engage in mentoring relationships with URM. Some of the reasons are not unique to this cross-ethnic or cross-gender relationship, but common to all mentoring relationships, such as lack of time, reward, or institutional focus. However, an important challenge specific to this type of relationship is fear of the unknown, specifically fear of navigating what may be a more nuanced relationship to have.

Third: Be practical about navigating these barriers

Once these considerations are placed into perspective, solutions can be put in place:

  • Be humble about what you don’t know: when trying to understand a person’s behaviors and thoughts, we tend to place them within our general knowledge of their (cultural/ethnic/gender) background. However, an individual is not a representative of their group and we need to consciously acknowledge that. In addition, we all operate according to implicit biases within us.

Solution: Ask questions to understand your mentee’s perspectives, values, and thoughts. Explicitly state that your intent is togetherness and growth, not judgment. This pays dividends in the openness of the relationship.

  • Create a safe space for connection: some mentors practice “protective hesitation”, where they avoid sensitive issues and situations, thereby limiting the extent of the relationship. 

Solution

  • Gradually increase the depth of the conversation. Start with “safe” topics such as goals, schedule, etc and move on to deeper conversations
  • Encourage contact and clarify that reaching out does not imply the lack of capability
  • Show public support
  • Empower the mentee to choose meeting places and times. Meeting outside of the workplace may not be viewed favorably, and certain times may be off-limits due to religious or cultural commitments. If meeting outside of work, avoid an alcohol-centered focus unless you’re absolutely sure that is not a concern of the mentee. If there’s a cost associated with the meeting (e.g. food or beverage), be prepared to cover it or choose a different setting. 
  • Depersonalize some of the interactions: accept that some guidance may not be followed, as advice that has worked for a mentor may not be beneficial or even possibly harmful for a mentee. This has no bearing on the value of the relationship and could be a good segue for continued connection rather than breed resentment. 

The Debrief:

Mentoring URM is an important step to further their career and improve the workplace for all. In addition to being available to serve as a mentor, implement the following steps:

  • Be humble about what you don’t know
  • Create a safe space for connection, mentally and physically
  • Depersonalize some of the interactions and use them to grow

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