Supporting women’s mentoring in higher education: a literature review 2010

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Mentoring schemes in higher education tend to share common goals including the socialisation of employees into the organisational culture and provision of support for career development.

Common in higher education, peer mentoring schemes are used to support new employees in the development of task and relationship effectiveness. Shapiro et al (1978) define a peer mentor as a mentor at the same level as the mentee with whom to share information and strategy, and provide mutual support for mutual benefit (Woodd, 1997). The lack of hierarchy in peer mentoring facilitates the communication and collaboration that is necessary for effective learning, enabling the information sharing, emotional support and friendship that may be critical for a new member of staff when settling into a new role (Kram and Isabella, 1985; Smith, 1990).

Most mentoring for the purpose of career development in higher education takes place informally. Historically the most common type of mentoring occurs when a senior colleague selects a junior member of staff to sponsor or coach, and enables exposure to various work opportunities and influential individuals. In informal mentoring, relationships emerge largely through mutual initiation and ongoing connections between mentee and mentor (Ragins and Cotton, 1991), with mentor and mentee spontaneously forming a relationship with the purpose of assisting the mentee in developing career-relevant skills (Kram, 1985). Uniquely to informal mentoring, relationships occur over time without external intervention, planning or management by an institution (Egan and Song, 2008).

Formal mentoring is often instigated and led by internal organisational facilitators. As noted by Ehrich et al (2004) some formal mentoring schemes may require participation in introductory sessions and ongoing training whereas others do not; mentors are assigned to mentees in some programmes yet in other programmes the mentee selects the mentor; some programmes designate the location, duration and frequency of meetings between mentor and mentee, whereas others leave it to the participants. Although there has been an increase in the use of formal mentoring programmes, the facilitation of such programmes can vary greatly in nature, focus, goals, structure and outcomes. Single and Muller (2001) highlight varying levels of facilitation in formal mentoring schemes, from low-level- facilitated mentoring programmes that do not provide support for the mentoring pair beyond matching them and providing introductory information, to high-level-facilitated programmes involving ongoing support throughout the programme to strengthen the mentoring relationship and accomplish specific goals. 

Mentoring – when a more experienced individual (not necessarily more senior) supports a colleague to enhance their learning and development – has been shown to benefit mentees, mentors and institutions, and can be widely used to address
the underrepresentation of women in senior positions in higher education.

The historical model of informal mentoring, most predominantly used by men, is being adapted and complemented by formal mentoring programmes to provide equal career advancement opportunities and support for women. Evaluation of existing programmes in higher education shows that among academic mentees, mentoring has contributed to career development in areas of research, publications and promotion, and provides a range of psychosocial benefits from the increased level of professional support.

This review highlights key factors for successful mentoring schemes including organisational support and resources, the need for clear goals and expectations (particularly in relation
to career advancement and frequency of contact), and the selection and matching of participants. It also highlights the importance of periodic monitoring and evaluation to take into account the longitudinal nature of mentoring, and enable greater understanding of the benefits for both mentors and mentees, as well as the positive impact such a scheme can have on the institution as a whole.

The majority of existing studies in higher education focus on mentoring for academics, however the findings will, in most cases, be transferable to professional and support staff. 

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