By Hannah Heinzekehr
When I was getting ready to apply for graduate school three years ago and filling in a list of my references, I was shocked to realize something: everyone I listed on that application was a male! This was shocking to me for many reasons:
- I consider myself a feminist and really value the input of fellow females
- I feel like my own personal journey has been shaped by many influential women
- I really appreciate having women to walk alongside and process life with me.
But at that time, when I thought of people who had filled the role of academic or spiritual mentor and who were willing to recommend me for further study, the first names that came to mind were male. Feeling a bit perturbed by this, I shared this story with a group of college women friends when we gathered for a reunion later that year. Surprisingly, many of them shared the same story.
Today, I feel blessed to have begun to discover new female mentors who have drawn me in and been willing to share openly with me about their careers, families and overall lives. But when Joanna Shenk invited me to join a team of women who were focusing on mentoring initiatives denomination-wide, this story stuck in my mind.
As part of our research for this team, I gathered responses about experiences with mentors from a number of young women about my age: some college friends, some folks from graduate school and a few others. Overall, most of the women I interviewed were able to name at least one person who had served as an important mentor at some point during their life, either in school, at work, at church or at home.
Many reflected on how influential these individuals were in training them for work, for motherhood and for other life transitions. One wrote, “Having her [my mentor] as someone to go to and knowing that I had an opportunity twice a month to bounce ideas off of someone, to learn from someone who had been in the same boat I was, was incredibly rewarding.”
However, almost across the board each of these women wished for more interaction with mentors. Several reflected on the challenge of finding women to serve as mentors. One woman cited the Bible and its injunctions for older women to reach out to younger women to serve as mentors, and lamented the fact that this had not happened easily. Often, this person observed, people did not reach out directly to her, but she had been able to initiate relationships or important conversations with women when she had been willing to reach out.
Many women observed that, by and large, older men had been more likely to reach out to them, to help name the gifts that they saw, and encouraged them to consider pursuing promotions or seeking out additional educational opportunities. They were very grateful for each of these male mentors, but also perplexed as to why there weren’t more women filling these same roles.
Some speculated that women in leadership positions have more to balance and often feel overwhelmed, or that sometimes, sadly, a sense of competition can develop between women of different generations. Several noted that older women in the workplace often seemed highly knowledgeable, competent and friendly, but were also often fighting burnout. Two respondents also noted that sometimes the responses or advice that they received from older women had actually felt more judgmental or hurtful than helpful.
Whatever the reasons, it is clear that young women value and are grateful for both the female and male mentors that they have had, and long for more mentoring relationships. They desire people who can help them understand how to balance work and personal life, who can help them understand what it looks like to navigate academia or organizational politics, and who is willing to share their own stories.
Many of the women I interviewed also reflected on the fact that, although they longed for mentors, they have not necessarily been intentional about reaching out to women who are younger than them or new to their workplaces or schools.
Given this continued hunger for mentors, it seems that the work of the women in leadership task force is much needed. It will be important for the future of the church to help people continue to find spaces where new mentoring relationships can take root and flourish.
What is your mentoring story? Do you have suggestions for our team as we work on mentoring projects?