September 10, 2021

Fieldnotes: A Workplace Conversation about Mentorship and Marginalization

Have you ever gotten advice from a mentor that didn’t quite sit well? Advice that disregards the essence of who you are and how you want to show up in the world?

Balancing your authentic self with the desire to “fit” into a new work culture takes time, a little distance and some good advice from someone you trust.  

I recently facilitated a discussion with a team of marketing colleagues in a large global tech company.  Together, we reflected on the power and pitfalls of workplace mentorship.  

Several participants shared their experiences of receiving both good and bad advice from well-meaning people who didn’t take the trouble to know them.  And several considered their own roles as mentors, influencing younger colleagues in ways that reflect their own desires more than those of their charges.  

In sharing moments of solicited and unsolicited advice, one young man reflected on the number of times he felt he had to change to fit others’ expectations. “Shape-shifting,” he called it. "If you change your identity so easily, so quickly, how do you retain the real you?"

These are foundational issues of inclusion: thorny and sensitive. But the assembled group was courageous and open, willing to examine and revisit their own assumptions. It’s tough enough to find the time and space to explore them together, let alone the context that makes a discussion comfortable and safe.  

How did they get so candid so quickly?

We started with a story.

Meet Dolapo Owolabi, a graduating university student in Britain with designs to enter the banking world. A well-meaning mentor (hired to help companies recruit minority students) schooled her on her name (call yourself “Dolly”) and her hair, the large afro Dolapo dearly loved. “Elegant, chic, glamorous,” she explained, “these are the adjectives we use for women in banking.  These are the adjectives for success.”

With Daisy’s encouragement, Dolapo purchased premium hair at a cost of 300 pounds, and had it woven and stitched into the tight braids of her natural hair. She became Dolly with new hair and the right clothes, remaining Dolapo underneath, struggling to recognize herself within the confines of her new “look.”

Dolapo is the protagonist in Nigerian author Chibundu Onuzo’s short but powerful story, “Sunita.” But she could be any young woman entering into the world of outsized expectations, modeling and molding herself for acceptance and belonging.

From the very first question I posed to the group, the story took us off to the races: “Was Daisy a good mentor?”

While the group felt that Dolapo emerges triumphant in the story (spoiler: she stands up for herself and goes to her interview as Dolapo with her own hair), Sunita’s experience is a little more sobering. An Indian child, her hair now neatly woven to Dolapo’s scalp, she suffers the torments of her schoolmates as she appears at school with a shaved head.  She literally fights the boys to preserve her dignity.

“She made a choice” to sell her hair, one person gingerly offered. But another asked whether her choice was really a choice - or simply an economic reality she could not avoid?

The global hair industry is measured in billions and growing rapidly. Sunita had something of great value in an otherwise spare life - was it really hers to decide how to (or even whether she might) retain it? One participant reframed the conversation, pausing as she considered the fates of those who support the things we take for granted.

Her colleague considered Sunita’s story a cautionary tale about the capitalization of deeply personal issues and experiences. He shared his dismay, for example, about a new Fortnite Martin Luther King Jr. game designed to recreate the experience of the civil rights movement. “Is it right to monetize people’s pain and sacrifice?”

Dolapo and Sunita come alive in Onuzo’s short but arresting story, creating the platform for a powerful discussion, grounded first in mentorship and success, and finally in the illusion of choice. “We live in a stratified social structure - built so that we don’t have to face the discomfort of our own choices,” one participant concluded, opening the discussion to both the personal and business implications of this reality.

By starting in a story - one that has nothing to do with anyone in the room but everything to do with being human - we had a meaningful and memorable discussion. Stories provide both a safe space and a mechanism to accelerate the conversation.

From an unlikely start in hair, we migrated swiftly to underlying systems of inequality, systems we don’t see unless we look very hard. In a short but productive hour, we explored the stuff of life and work, with openness, candor, a little humor and some deepening camaraderie.

A short diversion with sustainable impact. A reflection point indeed.

Image Credit:
Domenico Gnoli, Black Hair, 1969, via
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