Summer of Feminista: The Antidote to the Mentoring Poison

Francesca Escoto, Founder & CEO of the Innovators Institute and author of “Divorce Your Drama: Courage To Make The Tough Choices That Are Worth Every Tear”, is a startup coach, helping people turn their ideas into money.

I don’t want to lean in, lean forward, stand up, stand out, be assertive. I don’t want to show up, show off, toot my horn or speak up. I also don’t want to stay quiet, nor play the game, pay my dues, climb the ladder, or get off the ladder.

I want to be me. Is that too much to ask?

I am just sick and tired of people – both men and women – treating women as if there is something wrong with us and we need to get fixed.

When you add to the mix that I am Latina, well, I might as well get paid for breathing: I am a walking human experiment. The problem with Latin women are endless – health, education, social justice, economic access, biculturalism, ambiculturalism (WTF?), not enough Spanish, not enough English, asthma, diabetes, and apparently, a higher incidence of gall bladder disease after the age of 30. Who knew?

All the statistics, “the movement”, “la causa”, leave me feeling invisible and exposed at the same time, like a cadaver undergoing an autopsy: she’s dead anyway, we’re just trying to find out why.

Mentoring will certainly help Latinas play the corporate game and climb the ladder. It is something related to knowing the right people, having the right people sponsor you, and increasing your likeability and credibility factors for promotion. But I don’t want to talk about the corporate game. I play a different game altogether, and so for me, mentoring is not the answer. At least not mentoring as we typically describe it.

I’m not dead. So please let’s not go through the autopsy, trying to find out why I’m dead or dying. So, if I’m not trying to climb a ladder, I’m not trying to be the richest or most famous or most accomplished, there is nothing wrong with me. I am competitive, yet the rules of the game I compete in are different. I am on a race to make room for more winners, to make “the top” bigger by redefining it altogether.

And so it is with all of this as a backdrop that I finally approach the topic of mentoring. Mentoring is awesome, but not as a solution to any of the above conditions of the female species. Nothing cures a nonexistent illness. Mentoring can do absolutely nothing to resolve problems that don’t exist.

When mentoring is treated as solution to the problem of being female, it becomes part of the problem.

When mentoring is used as a tool to promote or even defend being a woman, it continues to be part of the problem because it is engaging in the same conversation, where being a woman is the topic, as if that was the real issue.

I believe the content of our conversation is skewed, focused on “the problem with women”, and not nearly enough emphasis is placed on the problem with humanity.

Here is my very bold observation: Men and women, equally, have yet to learn to get along and work together.

Our workplace relationships only mimic our social relationships – and they might even be a bit more civilized thanks to laws against sexual harassment. Women are part of the problem as much as men, but neither gender is inherently defective or in need of fixing. Both genders are humans, and humanity is the issue we are dealing with. So long as there is the capacity for greed, martyrdom, domestic violence (against men, women and/or children), envy, jealousy, abuse (sexual, mental, emotional, economic, etc.), women will be at risk. And boys. And girls. And men. We tend to forget that women are raising boys, and that women are passing on the very skewed values that they resent living by. This is not an oversimplification of the problem. On the contrary, I’m about to cry here with overwhelm when I consider the depravity of the human condition. Here are some of the issues that plague our species:

Personality disorders
I have to name this one first, because we seem to talk about issues in the workplace and at home and in the world, without taking into account that many humans are mentally unfit (and undiagnosed) not only for leadership, but also for basic human relations. Period. But it is their very personality disorder that makes them more attractive. Narcissists can be so charming! And bipolars are so creative (on the high side), and histrionics can be just so entertaining… Borderlines can be such great sales people. And on we go with the kinds of madness we must learn to live with. (Because we really do have to learn with it).

Character issues
Some people are not ambitious, they are unscrupulous. Some others have a hard time apologizing, and others take responsibility for stuff they didn’t do. Some people are pessimistic, and others are unrealistic. A few people are unreasonably happy all the time, and you wonder when the nervous breakdown is gonna hit. Some people are undisciplined and disorganized, and others are easily angered. Others are controlling about everything. Every human I know, males and female, including myself, has character flaws. Big ones.

Animal instincts
There is part of humans that is not so intellectual, orderly, or even rational. Chemistry is strong, but instincts can be stronger. Humans do more to avoid pain than to seek enjoyment. I would argue that addictions have more to do with avoiding the reality of pain than it does with the intent to feel good all day. Sometimes our instincts get the best of us in the worst of situations. And vice versa.

Until further notice, men cannot become physically pregnant nor breastfeed. Furthermore, breastfeeding releases into the body the same hormone that is released after sexual intercourse, which makes a person feel more attached and “cuddly”. Until men can breastfeed, they will rely on sex to feel something that women can feel without intercourse. Then again, not all women choose to breastfeed, and when they do, they do so for different lengths of time. In a similar manner, until further notice, men are not in control of having children. They are (truly, regardless of the law) completely powerless when it comes to procreation. They can impregnate a woman, but they can do very little after that. And what they can do, they have to do with her consent. Being a woman, I empathize with the pain of many men who want their children and the women either choose to abort them or limit his parental involvement. (C’mon ladies, you know this is true!). The burden and the blessing is in both sides.

Now, I’m not defending sexism, nor am I knocking mentoring. And I do consider myself a feminist – a defender of being feminine. I am a life coach for goodness’ sake! I believe in this stuff. Its just that mentoring cannot fix personality disorders, character flaws, nor biology. Here is what I would love to see in a mentoring relationship: an honest-to-goodness conversation about character flaws, a celebration of strengths, and genuine caring for people, going both ways, between mentor and mentee.

When mentoring focuses on anything other than the human experience, it loses its power to be transformative. And don’t get me started on paid mentoring. If you are paying for mentoring, what you are getting is a sub-standard coach who didn’t want to get certified or doesn’t genuinely care enough for you to help you, for free. If they don't have time for you, they should not make time for money. If a mentor wants to charge you, ask them for a coach certification or a therapist license. The last time I paid for friends was in college, when I joined a sorority, and while it was worth the fun, I'm too old for that.

But I digress.

The antidote to mentoring is relationship. I want to see Latinas being who they are, and allowing themselves to forge relationships with others, at any level of professional or personal development, based on a genuine interest in who the person is and in their story. There is no intimidation, no insecurity, no artificial distance between mentor and mentee.

This looks like an invitation for coffee, a daring phone call to someone that you don’t know but wish to know, a happy-birthday card to someone that you barely know but believe is adding something to the planet by being alive. Relationships look like tough conversations with people we disagree with, in an effort to understand them, not necessarily to change minds. Relationships look like an effort to meet people who are living the lives we want to be living (or so we think), and asking them questions about that life. Relationship looks like wanting more for the world we live in, and nurturing one, two, ten leaders in our lifetime because we believe in their dream and vision for this planet.Some of these relationships will become friendships, even sisters. Some will become co-workers, bosses, employees, and others will die right after “hello”. After all, we are dealing with the human condition (see the list above).

In a world of strata, asking a question has gotten expensive and complicated, and it has been labeled “mentoring”. But that’s their game, not mine. In my game, asking questions is free, it is simple, and you just do it. And you approach people who have the answers to your questions. And you answer the questions that are asked of you, to the best of your ability.

Yes, this game has fewer players. True, not everybody plays by these rules. My response is “So what? How is that working for me?” This is my game. These are my rules. And in my game, there are no losers. So when someone turns down my offer for coffee, or a phone call, or a visit, or advice, I just keep playing my game. In my game, the one who always asks questions and helps others, wins.

Summer of Feminista 2013 is a project of Viva la Feminista where Latinas are discussing mentoring and what it means to them. Read how you can join Summer of Feminista.  Link and quote, but do not repost without written permission.