Caroline Kitchener: Why was mentorship the solution to the gender-leadership problem you were tasked with solving?
Nannerl Keohane: In conversations with alumnae, mentoring was mentioned more than anything else as a crucial factor in helping people to become leaders. Women mentioned this more than men. It was quite striking. As they looked back on their Princeton experiences, female alums said it was really important that someone identified them as a potential leader and encouraged them to step forward.
Catherine Ettman: We also found out that mentorship was significant academically. The female recipients of academic accolades like the Rhodes and the Marshall scholarships could point back to individual professors who had mentored them and encouraged them to apply.
Kitchener: So did you find that women benefit from these mentoring relationships more than men do?
Keohane: My own hypothesis is that mentoring is particularly important for women at earlier stages. When men talk about mentoring, they talk about somebody taking them on once they’ve got a post. They bring themselves to the attention of someone at their organization, and that person—usually a man—takes them under his wing, helps them learn the ropes, and sees it as his responsibility to help them flourish. In my experience, women are more likely to say that their whole decision to join an organization, try for a fellowship, or take a leadership position was influenced heavily by a mentor.
Kitchener: Do you think women are less likely to go out and actively seek a mentor on their own? Are they helped more by programs that make those connections for them?
Ettman: Informal mentorship certainly exists. The benefit of institutionalized mentorship is to help overcome the arbitrary nature of those informal networks, but also to overcome the barriers to entry to those networks, which can often be entrenched in deep-seated history that tends to exclude certain groups.
Keohane: I think that’s right. It provides an entry point that people can feel comfortable taking up. They might feel uncomfortable going to up to someone and saying, “Will you please mentor me?” Having a clear pathway and a structure makes it a lot easier, particularly for women.
Ettman: I met a lot of different mentors during my time on the steering committee. And I think that happened because we were working towards a shared goal. That adds a dimension of substance to the mentorship relationship. A shared project allows you to work in tandem with a more senior person who can help you hone your craft and skill along the way.
Kitchener: Maybe that’s why it’s easier to create organic relationships in the workplace—because you’re working towards something together.
Keohane: That makes me think of the time I spent as Catherine’s senior thesis advisor. For me, the year I spent advising her was the time where our own mentorship relationship really developed. That was when I learned most about what would be helpful to Catherine. I could see how my suggestions were used, how they benefited her, and how she built upon them. But I could also see that when she pushed back—when I made a suggestion that she didn’t think was right on target—she, in her very Catherine-ian way, let me know that.