Mentoring and a Fairy Light

I noticed that one of my colleagues on the course had signed up to be a mentor with a company called Everwise. (Nice name. Bit cocky.) ‘Hmm,’ I thought, in a Careershifter Pioneer-ing spirit, ‘I wouldn’t mind being a mentor’.

OK, I haven’t really worked for 20 years (good grief, it’s more now) and I haven’t got my own act together. However, I do have experience of the workplace, I do have an MBA, have been involved in high level strategy for Fortune 500 companies, have branded and marketed companies large and small (not many, I grant you) in various industries and countries. Admittedly it was a long time ago.

But still.

I have come to realise, while involved with other people on the jobsearch in various contexts, and talking to friends and even my children, that I do have something to offer. Advice, suggestions, support. People have found my input helpful. I am not just an impartial sounding board, which would be valuable in itself. I actually DO have useful experience and intelligence and goodwill. I need to remind myself of this because I am so used to thinking of myself as a downtrodden, useless, abandoned housewife and mother. Maybe this is not how others see me. Maybe I should start seeing myself differently.

Anyway. I click onto the link, and the next thing I know, I am scheduled to be interviewed by an ‘Experience Manager’. That was quick! I hurriedly google the company. It was founded by successful, influential people from Yahoo and Cisco. Nice model for the shareholders: big corporates pay handsomely for their junior staff to join a six month Everwise programme which matches these ‘protégés’ to mentors (like me) who work without financial reward. Everwise aim to be ‘the eHarmony for finding the right career mentor’. They do this by entering data from volunteer mentor’s LinkedIn profiles and personalized interviews into their ‘matching algorithm’.

Everyone is using the word algorithm these days. I’ve spoken to people who use calculators to work out VAT at 20%, and when asked how something they are selling (like an activity tracker) works, confidently explain that it is done with an algorithm, as though that information alone explains everything I might want to know. And you can just taste how much they love using that word and feeling clever.

So: my interview. Gretchen (not her real name) is impressed with my cv, though I of course am staggered that it passes muster. In talking to her (she says little, but makes encouraging noises) I realise – and tell her so – that I do not particularly want to mentor someone who is one of a dozen people in a department of IBM or (heaven forbid) Goldman Sachs. I tell her I am more interested in working with people in smaller, more nimble organisations, possibly entrepreneurs. I’m neither interested in nor able to help much with big office structures and politics.

Further: I realise I have more to offer, and greater inclination, to support, advise and empower women in the workforce. Young women like my own daughters, full of enthusiasm and idealism, entering a world in which they can be sent home for not wearing high heels. Older women like me, whose confidence has taken a knock. Entrepreneurs trying to get their ideas off the ground but with very little business experience. People trying to stand up to ‘mansplaining’, to which I have listened all my life.

I don’t want to sound like a man-hater. I am not. But I know from experience (as well as published research) that men do the bulk of talking in meetings, undermine the contributions of women, make comments about women’s bosoms or menstrual cycles and that sexism is rife in the world. And I know that women find it more difficult than men (generalizing, I know) to speak up, contradict, claim or assert authority, ask for a payrise, or go home when they need to relieve the nanny (while their husbands work late or go out for drinks with the lads).

This realization surprises me actually. I’ve thought all of these things for a long time while simultaneously trying not to make distinctions according to sex or gender. With my children (including boy/girl twins) I never played the pink and blue game, and resented the prevailing segregation of clothes, books and toys. Not to mention expected behaviour norms.  Since I was a teenager I have rebelled in the face of titles needing to mark us out one way or another when in most cases (applying to open a bank account?) it should be utterly irrelevant. (That people still use Mrs or Miss when Ms, like Mr, at least doesn’t reveal marital status, boggles my mind.) I sometimes choose Mr. When I can get away with it: Prof. It cheers me up to be addressed in this way, and does not say anything about my genitals.

Anyway, the Everwise interview concludes with my saying I don’t think I would be suitable, and Gretchen saying if I don’t mind, she will keep my details on file. Now she understands what I am interested in and where I could help, if the right protégé should come along etc, etc. I say ‘sure, I’d be delighted to hear from you’. And I would. But secretly, the thought of making money for the ‘tech industry veterans’ who founded Everwise, is less attractive to me than the realization that another fairy light is forming quite a nice little pattern with some of the others. I have another idea.


Image: This photo of part of a tryptich in the chapel of Christ’s College Cambridge.  Painted by Angelus Workshop, this panel features Lady Margaret Beaufort and a Common Blue butterfly.


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Florence Feynman

I am a middle aged, middle class woman, thinking.

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