By Lisa Melonçon and Liza Potts
Purpose: Few organizations would question the importance of mentoring, yet mentoring is an under-researched aspect of technical communication. In fact, the vast amount of research across disciplines points to the need for new models for mentoring, particularly for women. This article offers a new mentoring model.
Method: A comprehensive review of the literature with a workplace case study provides a foundation for a new mentoring model in technical communication, addressing the limitations of current models.
Results: The literature review exposes weaknesses in current models for mentoring women. The recursive participatory mentoring (RPM) model developed in an academic setting shows potential for addressing these weaknesses, as shown through a workplace case study.
Conclusion: Technical communication needs new and innovative mentoring models to address the needs of women in the workplace. The recursive participatory mentoring model we describe provides the flexibility to be implemented in diverse workplaces and professional organizations. The model has shown initial success in providing women access to sustainable mentoring through their careers.
Keywords: mentoring, women in the workplace, user experience
Provides organizations a new mentoring model, particularly suited to the needs of women in the workplace.
Shifts mentoring from one based on hierarchies to one based on the experiences of the participants.
Gives practical insights into how to implement a new mentoring model in the workplace.
“So why aren’t there more female leaders among us? This is the question that is particularly relevant for male-dominated industries like technology, but applicable everywhere else. I believe that one of the answers lie [sic] in the lack of mentorship, in the lack of both mentors and mentees.” Walter (2012)
Mentoring programs have long been a staple of a workplace’s culture because they provide employees a way to develop and to hone a variety of professional skills, while simultaneously creating a connection with the company. The goal of mentoring is to better balance stated values, commitments, and ideals in the lived experiences of employees, both professionally and personally. Because many definitions of mentoring exist, we take mentoring to mean a relationship (or set of relationships) that provides insights and experiences around informal and formal rules of organizations and industries and can help mentees to develop confidence, insight, and problem-solving skills to advance in their careers while providing the mentors and organizations insights into organizational culture. Mentoring relationships provide a vast array of support around issues such as navigating organizational politics, offering a different perspective, brainstorming problem-solving strategies, providing emotional support, giving feedback on particular issues, and focusing on professional development issues.
Here, we limit our focus specifically to mentoring for women, who make up 47% of the U.S. workforce (U.S. Dept of Labor, 2017). Absolutely, issues of mentoring affect all employees, and men can and should play a vital role in mentoring. However, the issues that women face in the workplace are different and, in one of the few surveys of women professionals, completed by LinkedIn, Williams (2011) reported 82% of women believed in the importance of mentoring, yet, there is still “a large chasm [continues] between the number of women starting out on the professional track and how many [sic] advancing to senior positions” (Warrell, 2017, n.p.). This lack of advancement to the corporate suite is likely due in part to the fact that only 54% of women “have access to senior leaders as mentors” (EgonZehnder, 2017, p. 5). According to trade publications, the number of women working in technology companies is around 30%, but when those numbers are parsed to look at women in leadership positions, the percentage falls to 22.5%, which means women are not in positions to influence their companies’ strategic directions (Cheng, 2015). These numbers suggest that women; particularly in science, technology, and medical fields; have unique workplace needs that require a different type of mentoring model than is currently available in an effort to increase both mentors and mentees.
In what follows, we review the existing literature on mentoring and provide a synthesis and critique of existing mentoring models. The next section introduces a recursive participatory mentoring (RPM) model that addresses many concerns with and limitations of existing models. Then, we illustrate the potential of this model through a case study. Finally, we provide guidance on how to implement the RPM model. RPM as a mentoring model expands current research on mentoring, builds knowledge between research and practice, and offers ways to mentor women.
Research on Mentoring
The existing literature on mentoring is vast, but in our review of that research, we determined that a large portion applies to higher education settings, which makes it not easily transferable to other locations because of the unique characteristics of academic jobs and, thus, it does not support the premise of this paper (see, e.g., Buzzanell et al., 2015; Cole & Hassell, 2017; Montgomery, 2017).
Focusing more specifically on technical and professional communication (TPC), we could locate only three directly relevant studies that examined mentoring in technical and professional communication. In one study, Keller (2015) examined the mentoring practices of eight executive-level employees at a Midwest medical manufacturing company, and Zimmerman and Paul (2007) asked teachers of technical communication what problems they experienced when mentoring students. Zimmerman and Paul’s study concluded that the model of mentor and protégé was not an effective one. The most relevant scholarly inquiry into mentoring models for women and in TPC is Sullivan et al. (2015), who describe a participatory mentoring model in higher education that holds potential for workplace settings (discussed in more detail below).
Outside of TPC, recent research on workplace research (Allen et al., 2009; Doughtery et al., 2007; Ghosh & Reio, 2013; Helms et al., 2016; Scandura & Pellegrini, 2007) is limited to traditional models of mentor and protégé, whereas much of the academic research only offers “evidence-based” approaches without examples of successful models, nor does it focus particularly on women.
Trade publications routinely publish pieces on the importance of mentoring and creating workplace mentoring programs (e.g., Bond et al., 2017; Martinelli, 2016; Warrell, 2017), and that need is even more important in technology and technology-related companies. Bateman (2017) relays three stories of why mentoring matters in “tech,” with one mentee pointing out how her mentor has “been life changing,” which is echoed by other trade stories about the need for women to be mentored in the technology sector (Martin, 2012; Schwartz, 2015). In particular, one of these publications notes that “this groundswell of attention can be traced to the practical application of mentoring in organizational settings, as well as to the general appeal of mentoring as a personal, tangible, and transformational relationship” (Ragins & Kram, 2007, p. 4). The general appeal of mentoring, however, needs to be understood in light of the types of mentoring models that exist.
Since the literature on mentoring is vast, we narrowed our approach to determine the different types of models currently being used and researched. We wanted to better understand these models specifically in terms of their benefits and limitations to mentees, mentors, and organizations. Table 1 outlines the different types of mentoring models.
Other than the limitations or challenges mentioned in Table 1, all the current models also suffer from several general problems that impede the opportunities for developing successful mentoring relationships:
- They maintain hierarchical structures that do not allow true relationships to form.
- They do not account for different kinds of knowledge necessary to succeed and thereby do not encourage a series of mentoring relationships to address different concerns.
- They are difficult to sustain over a period of time, particularly as the employee grows and matures, and needs additional types and kinds of mentoring.
Thus, new mentoring models are necessary. In the next section, we introduce a recursive participatory model (RPM) that addresses the concerns and limitations of the existing models and directly addresses the three general issues mentioned above.
Recursive Participatory Mentoring Model (RPM)
Started in 2013 and developed to address the needs of women faculty in technical communication in higher education, Women in Technical Communication (womenintechcomm.org) is a nationally and internationally recognized academic organization. It provides women a safe space to discuss issues particular to their careers. (See the commentary, Simmons et al., 2015, for more information on the history of this organization.)
The foundational approach to Women in Technical Communication was to develop a mentoring model that valued “experiences over expertise, listening over directing, and relationships over rigidly institutionally sponsored program structures” (Moore et al., 2017, p. 231). In addition, the Women in Technical Communication model was based “on the feminist co-mentoring model that flattens hierarchies and redistributes power more widely and we draw on affective theories, that sidestep a kind of rationality that privileges traditional criteria (and that usually privileges men)” (Moore et al., 2017, p. 239). This feminist orientation to building the model allows it to focus on the dual goals of helping mentees achieve their career goals while also providing immediate help for problems, questions, and concerns that erupt in the day-to-day lives of participants. The feminist orientation also allows the model to work toward a work-life balance that is often missing in discussions on mentoring and career opportunities.
The model developed by Women in Technical Communication for higher education address many of the concerns and limitations of existing models and focused on ways to offset those concerns. To offset some of the challenges discussed in the previous section, the RPM model has two specific foci: (1) to acknowledge that the challenges women face are often unique from those faced by men and (2) to provide a safe space for women to discuss their concerns about their careers. Specifically, Women in Technical Communication considered how to integrate the experiences and expertise of both mentor and mentee because all experiences and expertise are valuable. The original model used in academic settings had four dimensions—people, places, resources, and affect (Sullivan et al., 2015).
Using past experiences as technical communicators, the authors have modified the original Women in Technical Communication mentoring model to ensure its applicability to diverse workplaces and professional organizations outside of higher education. RPM includes two new dimensions—domains and experiences—to ensure that the model can be used in workplace settings. These additions came from our own experiences in the workplace. Rather than older approaches that focus mentoring on certain variables or criterion, such as career outcomes (Lankau & Scandura, 2002; Scandura & Schriesheim, 1994), stress (Kram & Hall, 1991; Nielson et al., 2001), or specific benefits to the organization (see e.g., Clutterback, 2004; Dickinson et al., 2009), RPM is designed to address the whole woman and her perspective of how her career is progressing, which is another unique aspect to this model.
To achieve an emphasis on the whole person requires an ongoing recursive, reflexive process that involves active participants. The key terms—recursive and participatory—are important enough to warrant a brief explanation. The emphasis on recursivity highlights the model’s necessity to be continually evaluated by asking participants for feedback, reflecting on the positive and negative events that have come from the model, and altering and updating ways of encouraging participation. Recursivity, by its nature, encourages repetition and reflection and that means that activities need to be repeated to hone their effectiveness, as well as to determine what works and what does not. The self-reflective nature of recursivity remains important for all participants in the model because it allows space for consideration of what might be needed at different times in a woman’s career.
Participatory invokes the idea of active engagement. Current mentoring models often require different levels of engagement that range from assigned mentors and either dictate meeting every few months or are completely voluntary. Because RPM advocates for engagement by those who want to actively participate, it encourages organizations to work with participants to build infrastructures that are more sustainable and open to different kinds of experiences and expertise. The main goal of participatory is to eliminate (or to minimize) the hierarchical nature of existing models, while also encouraging the type of grassroots participation that ensures the viability of the model. Participatory also allows for different types of engagement (based on place, career, needs, or knowledge), as well as different lengths of participation (one-time meetings, consistent involvement, intense one-on-one help for a short period of time, etc.). The structure, however, is participatory and contingent on the situation rather than on the ways existing models provide a structure that mentoring must fit into.
By calling the model recursive and participatory, we hope to bring to the forefront the holistic nature of the approach where both mentors and mentees are finding value. This model is not focused on fixing or improving the individual; rather, its focus is on creating structures/infrastructures that promote continued success, no matter the level of “success” the individual needs. This approach can support women and help them create balanced lives and achieve the type and kind of success they would like to achieve based on individual needs and experiences. In the next section, we describe RPM’s six dimensions.
Six Dimensions of the Recursive Participatory Mentoring Model
RPM addresses six important dimensions of mentoring: people, places, resources, affect, domains, and experiences. Each of these dimensions overlap with one another and, at any given moment, one dimension may need more attention than others. The benefit of the model is in its flexibility driven by the participants. See Figure 1.
It is important to note three specifics about the overall model. First, this model “would not be successful without these dimensions because the model emphasizes the situational nature of mentoring” (Sullivan et al., 2015, n.p.), and the dimensions, while discussed separately, often overlap and, in many ways, depend on one another. Second, the dotted line represents the recursive nature of the model, its openness, and flexibility. The decision not to close the outer circle with a continuous line represents the opportunity for the dimensions and the overall model to be used as needed, as well as being able to move between and within each of the dimensions. Finally, even though we have touted the flexibility of the model and the way it mitigates problems with existing mentoring models that have too much structure, this model does contain structure. This structure is represented by the two-way areas and the circular construction of the model. These structures, however, are based on need rather than current models that set up structures first and then hope for, or force, alignment.
People include those needing mentoring and those participating as mentors. A wide variety and diversity of people are needed to serve in different mentoring relationships. Although some scholars have advocated for men mentoring women (Johnson & Smith, 2016), Bowling (2018) found that women need places (see next section) “where women can learn from other” (n.p.). Having women-only interactions and events does not prohibit, nor should it, thoughtful inclusion of male allies as part of the people dimension. However, we would recommend scaffolding—starting with encouraging women to share their experiences and practices to help other women. Starting with women only allows the women participants the opportunity to discover what they may need from mentoring and then to discuss with one another what they may need from male allies. This scaffolding of including women first and then potentially expanding to include men ensures that the people dimension of the RPM model meets the needs of the women who want to participate.
The number of people needed for an RPM model to work varies on the commitments and, more importantly, on the needs of those involved. The model only succeeds when people involved are engaged and available to build long-term and more involved relationships, rather than simply thinking of mentoring as another short task on their to-do list. Members of the organization at all levels should be encouraged to participate. From senior managers to those recently hired, it is crucial for a wide range of participants who bring unique experiences and levels of commitment. Through their experiences and participation, participants can provide insights into new ways of thinking.
An important aspect of the people dimension is that although the RPM model is participatory and eliminates many of the negative aspects of hierarchies, someone or a group of people still need to lead the coordinator efforts. As with any initiative, a mentoring initiative only works if there is ownership by all those involved, which includes the organization ensuring that someone is in charge. However, for the RPM to work effectively, those coordinating the effort need to ensure that it is a flat mentoring system rather than one of the hierarchical models. For example, the academic Women in Technical Communication has a steering committee that purposely “steers” rather than dictates, and it does so by consistently asking for anonymous and/or confidential feedback and ideas from those women who participate.
Traditional models have face-to-face meetings, although models that leverage technology often do not include face-to-face meetings but can still be limited because of the lack of personal interaction and the limitations of various technological mediums. One of the problems with current mentoring models (see, e.g., Ragins & Kram, 2007; Rodrigo et al., 2014) is that they often rely on specific, singular spaces for the mentoring process. Women often lack power in the workplace and may have difficulty finding not only people, but places where conversations can occur. The RPM model understands the need for multiple places to meet and interact so that women can feel safe to talk about issues that concern them. These places should include face-to-face gatherings as well as a variety of online opportunities.
For example, women may not feel comfortable sending a message via the organization’s email because organizational email is not private nor secure. Different communication channels need to be established that have varying degrees of privacy and security. There can be open channels where quick questions can be posed, but having more secure and private opportunities to communication are also important. Although it would make sense to have a designated space within the organization for mentoring meetings and conversations, it is also important to encourage face-to-face meetings outside of the organization, which would afford women the opportunity to discuss issues more freely.
Having multiple places enables different kinds of relationships to build. Opening up where mentoring occurs also means that mentoring can and should be done on the fly with quick questions that can be answered by any number of people. Having alternate places—physical (within the organization and outside of it), social media, and virtual—for mentoring also means there is a flexibility that encourages mentoring across organizations.
Even though people remain the most important resource, RPM stands a better chance of success with additional resources that create a useful and helpful structure. When we use “resources” here, we mean tangible things such as reading materials on common topics (e.g., how to overcome the double bind of personality traits, such as women being aggressive and men being assertive), frequently asked questions with answers (e.g., common topics in learning a new organization or how to negotiate more effectively), organizational support for gatherings (e.g., having someone on staff who helps to publicize events), or money for refreshments. Resources also include setting up a limited infrastructure like an online hub and specific communication channels.
Resources are necessary for women’s mentoring initiatives because of the uniqueness of some of the issues that women face. Having additional resources from which women can draw provides multiple sources of information to help women make decisions. For example, negotiation is always a difficult topic, and, after a conversation with someone who was successful, a woman may like part of the approach but feel she cannot implement it. Additional materials would help to place the personal experiences and insights received in mentoring with other views. As another example, the communication channels are vitally important for women and mentoring. Much like the need for safe spaces, different communication channels are necessary to afford varying levels of privacy and security for issues facing women. It would not make sense to discuss on company email an issue of harassment by a supervisor. Having other communication channels and ways to receive immediate or quick feedback on an issue makes the RPM model unique.
Additionally, resources can also be a flexible category for whatever the community needs that goes outside of the bounds of simply keeping the RPM model moving forward. For example, as Women in Technical Communication has matured, we realized, based on feedback from participants, that they need summary notes from a series of conversations that are conducted in an online space. These notes (capturing the question and answers in a way that participants still feel as though they can speak freely without repercussions) have become another set of resources. These documented records that resulted from online conversations were not something originally envisioned as a resource. With the variations of how the RPM model could be implemented, we encourage an open and flexible approach to what resources can mean and how they can be interpreted and delivered.
While, at first glance, one may wonder why we did not choose to go with “emotion,” we opted to call this dimension “affect” because we wanted to emphasize that emotions and stress are connected to a person’s body. Affect includes both embodiment and emotion, and emphasizes the idea that mentoring needs to consider the whole person. The ongoing micro-aggressions, harassment, and struggle to be seen, heard, and respected that many women face can take a tremendous toll mentally, emotionally, and physically. Numerous studies have shown the links between ongoing high stress and overall health (e.g., Nelson & Burke, 2018) so the model must include a dimension that highlights the whole woman: emotional, mental, and physical.
Beyond emotional intelligence (e.g., Chun et al., 2010), affect considers the intensities between people—between bodies—and their emotions that often take place in workplace contexts. Affect also captures the spirit of the RPM model in offering a common ground to let women know that they are not in any situation alone. Affect emphasizes the relationships between women and this dimension helps to situate the primacy and importance of listening and care that are necessary to build supportive, trusting mentoring relationships. In other words, affect encourages attention to the fact that those participating in mentoring are people with all the complexities of thoughts, feelings, fears, and reactions of any human being.
We hesitated to gender the model, particularly in terms of affect (or emotion), but one of the distinguishing characteristics of RPM is in the way the model builds safe spaces where true listening and trust-building can take place. Affect also accounts for the embodied reactions that often occur as a result of a problem or harassment that women in particular face on the job. This dimension takes effect when those participating take the time to learn about and then sincerely listen to these problems to ensure that the spaces and places where mentoring takes place are truly places where an honest dialogue can happen around important topics affecting women in the workplace.
Even though women across industries may share similar experiences, successful mentoring is linked to similarities in industry type and domain knowledges. For example, Women in Technical Communication in higher education was founded to address the needs of women faculty who share the domain knowledge around academic technical communication. The experiences of faculty in this area differ from even other faculty members who may reside in the same department (such as women faculty in literature or women faculty in organizational communication). Thus, the RPM model encourages those with knowledge in specific domains to gather. This domain knowledge can relate to a specific industry (e.g., user experience) or to a specific organizational culture (e.g., women from across different divisions within the same organization).
Sharing domain knowledge enables women to come into the mentoring process with similar foundational knowledge and immediately allows for a connection between participants that may not be present across domain knowledges. Even though this feature would be useful across any type of mentoring model (i.e., other models that are not exclusively for women), the idea of a common connection allows participants to start on equal footing and to be able to share their concerns and questions with a common starting place.
The question of how to interpret what “knowledge domains” means affords RPM the flexibility to be useful in any type of organization. For example, while the Women in Technical Communication example (and the workplace model presented below) share a knowledge domain around a particular subject matter, organizations can implement the RPM model across related divisions that commonly interact. No matter the interpretation of the knowledge domain, the model encourages women to enter into mentoring with some common, shared foundation that can immediately open up opportunities for shared experiences, which is the final dimension of the RPM model.
To flatten hierarchies, the experiences of participants are the primary focus and not the positionality of those in the mentoring process. Like other minorities in the workplace, women must deal with more complex issues such as microaggressions and the need to advocate for themselves. In addition, women are confronted with other issues of work-life balance, including caregiving for children and aging parents. Certainly, women are not the only gender taking care of others, but it is a relevant issue for work-life balance. Acknowledging women’s experiences is a major component of this mentoring model. By foregrounding experiences in this model, we aim to ensure that the diverse and different needs of women have a better chance of being met.
RPM’s emphasis on experiences allows for growth and development that encourages both an ongoing, primary mentor that remains for a longer period of time or that allows for the primary mentorship to change as the person progresses through her career. In other words, RPM emphasizes that mentors should be based on the current experiences and questions that a person may need help with, and, because of that, the primary mentor may change, may stay the same, or may change her role. At any given time, someone may have multiple mentors based on different experiences and needs, and as the needs change or shift, mentors may need to change as well. For example, junior employees may experience issues on that job that senior employees no longer deal with; thus, mentee needs to find someone who has recent experience with a particular issue to help determine ways to address it. This is not to say that multiple perspectives should not be sought out, but it highlights the fact that mentoring based on experiences means ideas and support can come from those who are equal or below in organizational units. In the next section, we describe a case study in which an organization has begun to implement the RPM model as a way to demonstrate how the model works in practice. It also encourages different kinds of experiences to be represented, supported, and shared because of how this approach can move across organizations and levels rather than rely on a hierarchical support.
During the time that Women in Technical Communication was being implemented in higher education, one of the authors of this paper partnered with an organization built by women for women in the user experience (UX) community. Launched in 2013 by user experience professionals Georgie Bottomley and Lizzie Dyson, Ladies that UX (LTUX) was founded to make space for networking and camaraderie among professional women in a male-dominated field. LTUX is a global organization that strives to connect and support women across the user experience industry. With more than 53 groups representing cities across 25 countries, the group works to help women find one another in an industry that is woefully lacking female representation. LTUX is an organization that has experienced tremendous growth in a short time, and the founders wanted to understand how they could support their local leaders. For one of the authors of this paper, working with LTUX provided an opportunity to research mentoring models and to subsequently refine RPM in a setting outside of higher education.
LTUX started with the vision and inspiration of two women. While they maintain a presence within their local environment in Manchester and London, UK, they have mentored and inspired women all over the world. The ways in which the various LTUX describe themselves speak to their supportive mentoring culture where the emphasis is on activism, support, and gender, and emphasizes the people dimension in specific ways.
MeetUp.com is one of the digital spaces used by local leaders to help organize their LTUX group. On MeetUp.com, organizers can decide on what they will name the members of their Meetup group. This user interface flexibility has helped local leaders create a visible ethos for their city through these choices:
- a group in Grand Rapids, Michigan, US, refers to their members as “advocates,”
- groups in Durham, North Carolina, US; Tokyo, Japan; and Amsterdam, Holland refer to members as “Ladies” or “UX Ladies,”
- groups in Utrecht, Netherlands; Los Angeles, California, US; and Detroit, Michigan, US refer to their members as “UX’ers.”
Such naming choices give us insights into how these city groups are situating themselves and identifying their members and, in some cases, their mentoring style, which is directly connected to the people that help manage and steer the local communities.
Dimensions: Places and Affect
Through monthly meet-ups, local group meetings create “a welcoming, transparent community of women that work in UX, who positively promote and teach each other” (Ladies that UX). Noting that women employees are woefully in the minority at technology workplaces, the original LTUX employed the dimensions of both place and affect simultaneously when they looked to create an organization that would meet after work and in a more relaxed location, such as a pub or restaurant. For the founders of LTUX, it was critical to create a physical, in-person space where women were able to openly discuss workplace issues and find camaraderie with other women. This safe space away from the women’s workplaces is also an indirect acknowledgement of the emotion, stress, and physical fatigue that is often associated with working through challenging workplace issues. Even though the founders of LTUX may not have identified part of their mentoring as affective, they were most certainly enacting that role through their approach to considering all aspects of the women’s lives and bodies.s
Dimensions: Domains and Experiences
As stated on the official LTUX site, “If you’re inquisitive, enthusiastic and interested in making the world a better place for users, you’re one of us.” During these meet-ups, these professionals join together to watch presentations, participate in workshops, and exchange ideas. A major emphasis of this group is to help women learn about the UX field more generally and how to position themselves in the market more specifically. Through these mentorship activities, LTUX participants are able to benefit from a shared mentorship space outside of their own workplace employer. This kind of mentorship is vital to create safe spaces for creative, supportive problem-solving for women, giving the participants resources that they typically cannot find within their own workplace, while also sidestepping the prevalent issues of gender bias and discrimination.
The success of LTUX hinges in large part on the RPM dimensions of domains and experiences. The founders of LTUX recognized that women who shared the common knowledge domain of user experience needed to be brought together because many women in UX may be the only women at their workplaces. Thus, the knowledge domain is so important to the success of the model because women who participate are starting out with a common foundation through the knowledge domain. Once brought together through sharing a common job title or work responsibilities, women in LTUX were able to draw on the diverse experiences of its members to provide quality content. The mentoring aspects of this organization are made clear in the ways in which they meet in low-stakes environments and the kinds of materials they share through talks and themes. These specific moves are worth mentioning to illustrate how mentoring models can work best for women in industries, such as user experience, where they are in the minority. The founders of LTUX are clear about the reasons why they created their organization: They had no mentors in their workplaces—no mid-career and senior women who could mentor, lead, and help support them at their workplaces. This dearth of women in leadership positions spurred on the LTUX founders to establish an organization that would specifically focus on supporting, mentoring, and guiding women in these positions.
LTUX provides an ongoing case study of the RPM model and how it can be successfully implemented in the workplace. LTUX illustrates the flexibility and necessity of the different dimensions—people, places, affect, domains, and experiences. The flexibility of the model is also on display since LTUX does not implement all six dimensions, nor do they implement the dimensions equally. For their purposes, LTUX relies most heavily on people, places, domains, and experiences, while resources and affect are not as dominant in the broader implementation of the RPM model. In the next section, we describe how to put the RPM model into workplace practice.
Putting the RPM Model into Practice
The implication of the RPM model is first and foremost that it provides a necessary tool to help women succeed in the workplace. Recent research (Srivastava, 2015) has shown that women gain more from mentoring than men gain, so mentorship becomes an essential tool to help women flourish in the workplace. Implementing mentoring models, such as RPM, also provides organizations with a unique opportunity to meet the needs of a diverse workforce. The body of literature about multigenerational workforces (Gay, 2017) and the needs of different generations in the workforce (see, e.g., Rentz, 2015, for a look at Generation Y) points to the necessity for organizations to expand the way they think of mentoring, and the RPM model provides that sort of dynamic and flexible ability to work for different types of people and in different organizations.
Even though we focus on women, the model is also an ideal construction to begin learning about and developing mentoring practices with communities of color and indigenous and LGBTQ+ communities, among others. The dimensions of affect, people, and resources are already in place within the model to assist organizations with finding ways to better mentor and train on inclusivity practices.
To put the RPM model into practice, organizations need to start with five interlocking steps:
- Align with organizational goals
- Secure ownership and buy-in from management and employees
- Mentor the mentors
- Allocate resources and build infrastructure
- Develop communication channels
Align with Organizational Goals
When we speak of an organization’s goals, we mean the overarching philosophy in general and the specific goals the organization has to support its employees or members. We are thinking broadly when we consider organizations from a single company to a national organization around a specific area of knowledge (such as the publisher of this journal, the Society for Technical Communication). The approach to implementing the RPM model will be somewhat different, depending on the organization’s overall goals. For example, how the initial structure is created will be different for an organization that is trying to initially solve problems that women, or other marginalized employees, face, as compared to an organization that is trying to give women space to advance their careers.
This sort of model will be harder to evaluate because it is more organic, takes longer to build, and needs innovative metrics on what “success” is and how it is defined. One cannot rush mentorship and trust, and those successes are much harder to quantify. However, from our own experiences and from what we have learned through the LTUX case study, a number of ways exist to evaluate success, including ongoing participation numbers (even if it is not the same people participating) and focusing on the recursive nature of the model and asking for feedback (both positive and ways to improve).
Get Ownership and Buy-in From Management and Employees
We believe in the recursive, participatory nature of the model, but it is unrealistic to think that this sort of process will work without leadership or buy-in. RPM only works with a dedicated commitment from the organization, or even a small group of people within the organization, to launch, support, and maintain the model.
Having employees who are interested be engaged with this model is essential. Employers can help to incentivize participation by making time, space, and resources available for employees. Again, RPM does not need to involve everyone or even the majority, provided it is supported by leadership.
While the RPM model needs someone(s) to direct its activity, we also recommend thinking about implementing a mentoring model that works across individual organizations. For example, the LTUX case study shows that it centers on a domain of knowledge outside of the participants’ workplaces. Instead, it draws women who work in UX broadly from different organizations. Our own experiences within higher education point to the fact that the success of the model is partially due to the fact that the mentoring crosses institutions both in participants and those who help steer and organize events.
Mentor the Mentors
We would be remiss if we did not point out the one potential limitation of the RPM model, and it is one that needs careful consideration during the implementation phase. This model requires training and mentoring of mentors to ensure that they understand how to appropriately interact, react, and provide feedback. Not everyone makes a good mentor, and in this sort of flexible model, it is impossible to ensure that all advice is good advice. Because of the distributed and grassroots nature of the relationships being built, this model lacks hierarchy and top-down rules-setting. This lack of hierarchy and rules-setting is by design, and, in fact, it is one of the strengths of this model. That said, it requires mentoring the mentors and providing them with training as needed. RPM is more susceptible to ineffective mentoring if such training is neglected. However, we feel that this potential cost is far outweighed by the benefits noted here. Starting this program requires people committed to listening and understanding the issues that women face in the workplace. Those who step into the role of setting up the RPM model need not be experienced mentors, but they do need to approach the endeavor by listening to what women need and ensuring that they are providing opportunities for feedback and reflection. If those in the role of steering and supporting the RPM model are not trained mentors, then it is also a good idea to bring in someone with expertise and experience in mentoring to provide support and information.
Allocate Resources and Build Infrastructure
The most important resource to cultivate initially is people. For mentors and mentees, the RPM model allows for a wide variety of experiences and knowledge to be recognized, celebrated, and shared. With the distribution and participatory nature of RPM, it also means that the work of providing mentoring is distributed, which allows for less burnout and also diverse insights. Outside of people, however, it is important that there is a concentrated effort to simultaneously build a resource repository that can address immediate concerns or provide additional information around important topics. For example, the question of negotiation for new positions is a perennial topic of concern for women. Someone participating in RPM may have a conversation with a trusted member of the community. However, it is also helpful to have additional resources that provide alternative strategies and/or resources that point to important information such as average salary ranges and expected job responsibilities. The RPM model encourages the participation of men and those people who have typically held power in an organization. Involving and encouraging male advocates will strengthen the infrastructure and provide additional vital resources for ongoing sustainability.
Develop Communication Channels
One of the biggest strengths of the RPM model is its recursive nature. Therefore, it is important to develop consistent opportunities for feedback loops to improve and implement processes at the request of those participating. Communication channels are key to building strong and numerous relationships within the community so that those participating know how to reach people they may need to help with a specific situation. Additionally, communication channels can market and promote events that can build and grow the RPM model organically. Constant communication across a number of channels (traditional organizational email, social media, and Slack, to name a few) help to build a community with shared interests and concerns.
Women in the workplace, no matter what or where those workplaces are, need mentoring. The RPM model is a flexible and scalable model that provides an approach to mentoring that is sustainable and, more importantly, recognizes the experiences of the mentors and mentees, focuses on domain knowledge, encourages considerations of the whole person, and addresses the hierarchical structures of existing mentoring models. Even though the LTUX example is still in progress, it demonstrates the promise for the RPM model’s approach, and it also suggests that the RPM model could be used to develop more inclusive mentoring practices. We encourage listening, learning, modifying, and improving upon this model, particularly for women, people of color, and other minority populations in the workplace.
Recent research (St.Amant & Melonçon, 2016) highlighted that workplace practitioners were open to and willing to implement mentoring solutions based on academic research. The Recursive Participatory Mentoring (RPM) model is an example of such research that had its origins in academia and has moved into the workplace. The STC, with Adobe’s support, has formed its own special interest group focused on the needs of women in the profession. Without dedicated support structures such as the RPM mentoring model, women will continue to lag behind men in career growth opportunities. STC has the perfect opportunity to incorporate the RPM model into the organization and develop a researched case study that would not only benefit the field of technical communication, but also benefit mentoring research as well.
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About the Authors
Lisa Melonçon is an STC Senior Member and special projects coordinator of the STC-Academic SIG. She is an associate professor of technical communication at the University of South Florida. Lisa’s award-winning research focuses on programmatic issues in the field, research methods, and health communication. She also owns a technical communication consulting firm. She is available at email@example.com.
Liza Potts is an Associate Professor in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures at Michigan State University where she is the Director of WIDE Research and the Co-Founder of the Experience Architecture program. Her research interests include networked participatory culture, social user experience, and digital rhetoric. She has published three books and over 65 articles. Her professional experience includes working for technology startups, Microsoft, and design consultancies. She is available at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Manuscript received 7 July 2018, revised 9 November 2018; accepted 3 January 2019.