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Thanks to Our Mentors

November 6, 2021

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The poet Maya Angelou mentored Oprah.  At her Chicago law firm, Michelle Robinson mentored the young Barack Obama, who later married her.  In Hollywood, Audrey Hepburn mentored Elizabeth Taylor.

I don’t remember ever hearing the word “mentor” when I was growing up in the 1950s Midwest. Sister Deodata, though, my high-school social studies teacher, certainly mentored me. A tough taskmaster and a fount of knowledge, she encouraged me to broaden my vistas and to write, write, write.   We remained friends until she died many years later.

There was also my grandfather, who was the publisher and editor of a chain of weekly newspapers in Michigan.  He recognized my writing spark, too, and helped me learn the art and craft of journalism when I spent my high-school summers working at one of his newspapers. 

As we look forward to Thanksgiving 2021, it’s important to remember and to be thankful to our mentors — those caring people who helped “show us the ropes”.  We truly stand on their shoulders.  Now it’s our responsibility to bring others  along.

Women especially need help, experts say, when they are just starting their careers or changing careers.  Having a mentor increases the likelihood that women will be successful in their workplace.  

But the COVID-19 pandemic has upped the ante.  The pandemic has had “a far more negative impact on working women than men,” says Andrea Kramer, a lawyer who advises organizations on how to achieve a truly diverse workplace.  “Women have disproportionately lost jobs, disproportionately reduced their work hours, and disproportionately increased the time they spend on child care and household responsibilities.  As Claudia Goldin, professor of economics at Harvard has observed: ‘the [gender] inequalities that existed before the pandemic are now on steroids.’”

Many companies already have established strong formal programs that partner junior staffers with more senior managers. Companies with these programs are learning that the benefits go both ways:  mentors as well as mentees benefit.  

There are a number of groups and trade associations that offer mentorship programs, too, such as the Women’s Leadership and Mentor Alliance (WLMA), which pairs mentors and mentees across professions.  The mentoring is done remotely.

SC Women in Leadership has its Circles of Women: geographic, professional, or issue-based groups of women from all backgrounds who come together to network, learn, mentor, and support each other.

Each of us, though, can be a mentor on a personal, casual level.  We simply need to be good listeners, and to notice the girls and younger women in our lives who could use a role model or an experienced colleague to help them rise. 

Then one day, perhaps they’ll be thankful to us.

Jan Collins 2021-circle-crop

Jan Collins is a Columbia-based journalist, editor, and author. A former Nieman Fellow at Harvard and former Congressional Fellow in Washington, D. C., she is the coauthor of Next Steps: A Practical Guide to Planning for the Best Half of Your Life (Quill Driver Books, 2009).

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