Feeling similar to your mentor may be more important than shared demography when it comes to strong mentoring relationships

Hernandez, P. R., Estrada, M., Woodcock, A., & Schultz, P. W. (2017). Protégé perceptions of high mentorship quality depend on shared values more than on demographic match. The Journal of Experimental Education, 85(3), 450–468. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220973.2016.1246405

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: While it is a commonly held idea that matching a mentor and mentee/protégé based on demographic similarities will ensure a high quality mentoring relationship, researchers find that perceived similarity is more strongly associated with relationship quality. Researchers gave a questionnaire to a national sample of African American undergraduates majoring in STEM disciplines assessing their demographic and perceived similarity to a mentor, as well as their satisfaction with the mentoring relationship. The results indicate that perceived similarity was more prominently associated with the protégé’s assessment of the mentoring relationship as strong, compared to demographic similarity. Higher relationship satisfaction was also ultimately associated with higher commitment to working in the STEM field they were studying, as operationalized by questions about the student’s likelihood to pursue a degree or career in the field.


Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Mentoring, particularly same-gender and same-race mentoring, is increasingly seen as a powerful method to attract and retain more women and racial minorities into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and careers. This study examines elements of a mentoring dyad relationship (i.e., demographic and perceived similarity of values) that influenced the perceived quality of mentorship, as well as the effect of mentorship on STEM career commitment. A national sample of African American undergraduates majoring in STEM disciplines were surveyed in their senior year. Overall, perceived similarity, rather than demographic similarity of values, was the most important factor associated with protege perceptions of high-quality mentorship, which in turn was associated with higher commitment to STEM careers. We discuss the implications for mentoring underrepresented students and broadening participation in STEM.


Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

Our study examined the simultaneous effects of relational factors hypothesized to influence the quality of mentoring—specifically, the racial and gender homogeneity of the dyad as well as the protege’s level of perceived similarity. Contrary to the popularly held belief that gender or racial matching is an effective strategy for providing high-quality mentorship to underrepresented minority students (Brown, Davis, & McClendon, 1999; Davis, 2008), our data clearly indicated that proteges’ perceptions of similarity with their mentor was the dominant factor influencing the quality of mentoring—not demographic similarity. The large effect of perceived similarity on quality mentoring was consistent with findings from academic contexts among mostly White proteges (e.g., doctoral students in mentoring relationships) and meta-analytic evidence across mentoring contexts (Eby et al., 2013; Turban et al., 2002). Thus, the relative importance of similarity in terms of shared values appears to be just as important for African American college seniors in STEM as it has been shown to be for majority populations in academic and workplace contexts.

In addition, we had hypothesized that mentor-protege contact would moderate the effect of relational factors on the quality of mentoring; but we found that the expected patterns were not substantiated in these data. Regarding perceived similarity, we expected that higher degrees of perceived similarity would result in higher degrees of quality mentoring when contact was relatively high but expected negligible benefits if the dyad spent little time together (Harrison et al., 1998; Turban et al., 2002). We found that the effect of perceived similarity was only moderated for one aspect of quality mentoring—that is, relationship satisfaction. And although the perceived similarity effect on relationship satisfaction was moderated by contact, contrary to our expectations, higher degrees of perceived similarity resulted in higher degrees of satisfaction when contact was relatively low (not high) and results showed negligible benefits if the dyad spent more time together. Taken together, the pattern of perceived similarity effects on quality mentoring found in these data advance our understanding of how and when mentoring URMs works best in an undergraduate STEM context. Workplace and graduate school mentoring relationships (i.e., common contexts for much of prior literature on perceived similarity effects) typically develop over an extended period of time, often across many years, with relatively fluid times for transitioning between stages (e.g., initiation, separation) of mentoring (Kram, 1983). However, mentoring in the undergraduate context takes place over a relatively short period of time and transitions are relatively fixed (Jacobi, 1991). Thus, the shorter duration and more rigid transitions that define undergraduate mentoring may result in a more consistent correspondence between shared values and support, regardless of whether the mentor and protege spend more or less time interacting. In summary, these findings suggest that, overall, for undergraduates in their final year, the quality of mentorship matters more than the quantity of mentorship time.


To access this article, click here.