Dr. Stacy Blake-Beard, whose work focuses on college and graduate student mentoring, opens her piece by noting that it is often difficult to pinpoint all the factors that can contribute to successful mentoring relationships and outcomes. The most successful pairings are those based on a shared commonality between the mentor and the mentee. For example, matching on race and gender has been shown to be an effective strategy for helping female and students of color remain in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.
In this study, Blake-Beard research focuses the following questions:
- Do mentees express a preference for (and seek) mentors who share their race and gender?
- Does matching on the basis of race and gender affect the mentoring experience and outcomes?
The study also documents the effect of race and gender matching on three academic outcomes:
- Grade Point Average (self-reported)
Respondents selected from the over 7,000 undergraduate and graduate students and postdoctoral scholars actively participating in MentorNet’s online community, completed an online survey. MentorNet’s mission is to “foster a pervasive culture of mentoring in STEM fields that readily transfers expertise and experience from professional to students”. Survey respondents were in STEM studies or STEM-related business fields exclusively. Approximately one third (1,013) of those invited to participate returned completed surveys. The online survey included questions about respondents’ personal history and experiences with mentoring, their demographics, their academic details and included questions regarding the results of any previous mentoring experiences as detailed here:
Participants were categorized based on their gender, race, academics, and as well as their preferences and experiences with mentoring. Participants were identified by the strength of their desire to be mentored by similar race and gender mentors as well as the level of importance they placed on race or gender matching. In addition, mentees were asked about:
- Support from Mentor–Participants were asked to assess the level of psychosocial (mutual respect, consistency etc), instrumental (new skills, opportunities, challenging assignments etc) and role-modeling help they received.
- Academic Outcomes–Three academic outcomes were measured: self-reported GPA, academic self-efficacy, and achievement.
- Having a mentor of one’s own gender or race was felt to be important by many of the women and students of color.
- Students who had a mentor of their own gender or race reported receiving more help
- However, matching by race or gender did not appear to affect academic outcomes – even though students were more satisfied with their mentoring experience and believed race and/or gender matching to be important.
Blake-Beard points out, however, this complex result may be because gender and race are a poor proxy for other, more meaningful commonality matches. Additionally, the benefits of same race/gender mentoring may not be immediately measurable.
More research is needed regarding all aspects of matching – not just race and gender. Nevertheless, as Blake-Beard notes, the results have implications for diversity and mentoring. Matching on the basis of demographic characteristics such as race and gender may aid in creating more trusting bonds, leading to deeper and earlier connections. In the end, however, what might matter most is matching mentee needs with that which the mentor can provide. Summarized by Micheline Mann