Navigating gender and race through a mentor

Jun 10, 2019

Upon completion of Leadership Buffalo, Dr. Genelle Morris completed a short questionnaire about what she could contribute to a mentor-mentee relationship. It was shortly after that Morris received a list of potential mentees as part of an effort to increase women-to-women mentor partnerships. On that list was the name Stephanie Peete, who was very specific about her requirements for a mentor.

"I wanted a women who, obviously, was pursuing excellence in her career and I really wanted a woman who was African American. I made that very clear in the application," said Peete, Internship and Career Pathways Program Supervisor for Say Yes Buffalo.

"I love what I do for a living, but one of the - I would say - obstacles in what I do is I'm usually the only black woman in the room," Peete said. "It's very isolating. You begin to internalize the idea that you're not supposed to be there. So just being able to talk to her about what that feels like, how to boost my own confidence. I really wanted a black woman to help me navigate those different experiences."

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports only 6.5 percent of the workforce is black females, compared to 35.9 percent white females, while the 2018 annual "Women in the Workplace" report by LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Co. found only about one in five senior leaders is a woman and one in 25 is a woman of color.

"This one jumped right out at me because it was very specific and I thought it was right up my alley," said Morris, "and so I said, 'I think I'm what you're looking for' and that's how we ended up in a partnership."

As Chief Accountability Officer and Chief Information Officer for Buffalo Public Schools, Morris has mentored others through her alma mater, although not as formally as this relationship. She appreciates how significant such a relationship was for her and wants to respond in kind.

"I felt mentorship was an important path because, I just remember as an emerging professional, it was very difficult to find somebody who could serve as a mentor," said Morris, "but once I was able to find people who could take me under their wing, even partially, that was really supportive of me as I grew as a professional."

More women are taking the time to mentor. According to the most recent survey on Women and Mentoring by LinkedIn, Generation Y (ages 18-29) boasts the highest percentage of women who have been mentored or are being mentored: 51 percent. That compares to 43 percent for Generation X (ages 30-44) and 34 percent of Baby Boomers (ages 45-66).

One important factor is being proactive. The same survey found that 67 percent of respondents who had never mentored said it was because “no one ever asked.” Peete saw the opportunity on LinkedIn and knew she wanted to apply.

"So I signed up for Women Who Lead and it was pretty straightforward," Peete said. "The application process was maybe 10-15 minutes and within 30 days, I was able to get matched."

Peete and Morris are now formally meeting monthly about issues that come up in their professional lives.

"We used the first meeting to get to know each other and to say, 'Here's how we want to approach each meeting,'" Morris said. "So not necessarily coming up with a list of structured activities, but just kind of saying, 'All right, next time when we meet, I know this is coming up. I'd love to hear your take on this.'"

Peete said any issue has been "fair game" to share.

"I expect to hear about her experience and possibly walk through some different scenarios that I can go about accomplishing whatever I'm looking to do, or a couple solutions to try out, and then to provide some feedback about how it went," Peete said.

A 2014 report by Center Talent for Innovation found black women are nearly three times more likely than white women to aspire to a powerful position with a prestigious title. Black women also are more likely to have clear long-term goals and confidence than white women, but also report feeling more stalled in their career and unappreciated by their bosses.

Both mentee and mentor said the relationship has been valuable.

"Yeah, I love it. I don't have to problem-solve on my own. I really love having someone that I can shoot ideas past and get some honest feedback," Peete said. "I've learned to be straightforward with people and I think I've grown in confidence, as far as tackling the different scenarios that I encounter at work. I don't question myself as much. I think that's been the bigggest takeaway so far."

"First of all, her work is very interesting, so I love to hear more about what she's doing and how she's trying to serve and work with her community," Morris said. "So I'm learning about other ways that you can reach out and serve your community that may not necessarily be the traditional way. I think we constantly discuss different ways of approaching different problems and I'll give her a scenario that may have worked in my experience, but it's interesting to hear in hindsight how she was able to apply that. That's been valuable, as well."

Morris said trust also is important for the relationship to work.

"If Stephanie comes to me and she says, 'I'm experiencing this type of issue or problem. How do I tackle that?' I have to trust that I can share with her in confidence and vice versa," Morris said. "She has to be able to share with me and know that it stays with me in confidence."

"I also know people who may be involved in a mentorship and it's not a priority," said Peete. "You have to remain committed, making sure that you are following through and really taking it seriously. It's not just coffee. It's being prepared to discuss things going on professionally. With each month, we get a little deeper."

"It's incredible, really if you think about it, the caliber of mentors that have been collected in the initial group for partnering, in that professional women are really committed to that strengthening of their profession by using the expertise and skills of a mentor," said Morris. "I think it's a great way to build up the professional capacity of women, to help encourage us to stay in leadership positions and I think it's a very fulfilling role to play, if you're given the opportunity to do it."