In Margaret Atwood’s 1985 work The Handmaid’s Tale, she wrote “Fraternize means to behave like a brother.” Fraternizing, interestingly enough and according to vocabulary.com, means “a kind of wild frat house behavior” at its worst, “an implication of illegality or skullduggery.”
Atwood went on to write, “there is no corresponding word that meant to behave like a sister. Soroize, it would have to be …” So, I tried googling how to use soroize in a sentence and came up with zilch, zip, nada, nyet – nothing. Why is that?
So, where is this leading? To Women + Mentoring.
Last week Porter Novelli celebrated, recognized, honored, and remembered International Women’s Day by engaging in a series of week-long activities meant to open eyes and minds to the contributions of women across decades and around the world. The pinnacle of our week was on Wednesday, 3/8, when we partnered with LMHQ (Lower Manhattan HQ) to host an event “Women + Mentorship” bringing together 100+ women and even a few men. The audience engaged with a panel of speakers, moderated by Porter Novelli’s Soon Mee Kim, Global Diversity & Inclusion Leader, in a discussion about why more women do not mentor – not only other women, but also men. At the end of the panel discussion the audience broke into groups to engage in speed mentoring and networking.
As I walked around the event that evening introducing myself to attendees and contributing to conversations, I found myself wondering and asking why it is that in 2017 professional women are still not actively engaged in mentoring. I found myself thinking about my own mentoring experiences and comparing those to what I think other women have expected of me when they turned to me for mentoring.
Over the course of my professional life I have had three mentors, not counting my dad who mentored and coached me throughout my life. All were men. Not by design, it just worked out that way. Mentoring was a learning experience. I found that when I went to professional women and men with the same question, they responded differently. Men suggested options or helped me to find alternative routes while women gave answers. Men, including my father, did not tell me how to do something, did not give me an answer, but instead helped me to find and understand my options. One instance comes to mind when I was changing jobs. An offer I wanted very, very much came through three days after I accepted another company’s offer. Frozen budgets had unexpectedly defrosted. The offer was significantly better than the one I accepted and with a company that I seriously admired. So, I called one of my mentors. He heard me out without comment. I will never forget his words, “you agreed to dance with Henry, but, ultimately, you have to do what is best for you.” He never said keep your word, or you cannot break a commitment nor he did not tell me what to do; in somewhat oblique terms he helped me see my options. For 24 hours I thought hard. Ultimately I decided to keep dancing with Henry, and did so for over three years. It was a tough time but when I finally resigned that position I looked back on the day I made the decision to stay and in my heart thanked my mentor for helping me realize options so that I could make my own decision. By the way, when I circled back to share my decision with my mentor he did not say I made the right decision; instead, he congratulated me for the rationale behind the choice I had made.
Perhaps the reason more women do not mentor or are not sought as mentors is because women (and men) expect women to solve problems. To tell us what to do next or how to do it. Women mentors, like their male mentor counterparts, care about their mentees; the difference may be that women feel more protective of their mentees and do not want their mentees to make a mistake, and so will point out what is in their mind the best action or correct decision to make. Unfortunately, taking that decision away from the mentee does not help either party grow. It seems to me that a mentor helps their mentee grow by not telling their mentee what to do next, or how to do it, but by helping their mentee to understand their options and giving them tools to figure it out. It is in conversations about options that the mentor and mentee relationship becomes most valuable to both as the exchange of ideas creates opportunities to grow.
So, let’s circle back to the quote from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. In my humble opinion, we need a call to action. This is about women learning to soroize. We must find a verb that means to behave like sisters in order to change the dynamics of our experience in this world. The word is nothing more than a rallying call. If women are to advance, if our society is to advance, we must make sure that each woman belongs to herself, by knowing her options. That each woman, and man, understands that seeking out the guidance of women will be an intellectually enriching experience without penalty.
In conclusion, it is my hope that you will voice your thoughts; challenge these ideas or agree with them. How can we behave like sisters, uncovering options, the next time we are mentoring? Is it possible that having a woman mentor is the best of both worlds: someone who helps to uncover options and gives a direct answer?