We haven’t met but, I like Jane Caro. She’s a feminist, environmentalist, media commentator, a successful, funny lady and she even swears! So, it’s a bit awkward to disagree with her. Actually, it’s not so much disagreeing with her...it’s more like disambiguating some of the points that tangled together in her April 2019 article, “No, I can’t be your unpaid mentor.” (Read here if you haven't).
Jane rightly states that women should be paid equally to men, are often targeted as a soft touch during negotiations over money, their emotional labor is not recognized and rewarded and, are unfairly disdained for political and material success (Hillary Clinton) where men are admired. She concludes that, because women are disadvantaged in these ways we should not perform unpaid mentoring. More specifically, she advises women reading her article not to reach out to successful women they admire to ask for mentoring.
Let’s start with the notion that all work should be paid for. Jane admits that when she started her career she, “needed experience more than...remuneration”. In this way, she makes that point that one can work for a purpose other than cash and that, in fact, doing so can be a strategic choice - a smart choice, not an admission of lack of value. Yes, people may be motivated by a lack of respect when they ask a woman to work for ‘free’ but, your motivation for doing work without financial compensation can be something other than submitting to social pressure; it can be to gain experience, make connections, get industry insights...positioning yourself advantageously vis-a-vis competition. Just because you are expected to work “for love” doesn’t mean that is your motivation for said work. And just because you agree to unpaid work doesn't mean you are admitting to having little value.
But, men don’t work for free! Well, I haven’t done any extensive research on it but, I’m pretty sure men are not paid for every hour they spend working. My own experience meeting with legal and medical professionals demonstrates that initial consulting work is often done without remuneration, it’s performed as marketing. Men do unpaid public speaking for public relations. They work after hours on client projects and they write papers for publication for which they do not charge. So, what’s the difference? As far as I can see there is no difference...not in the work itself. The difference seems to be, again, in the strategic motivation; men seem to agree to unpaid work they think will further their career...do women agree to unpaid work for advancement? I expect some do but, I think many agree to unpaid work that does not deliver an advantage because they either fail to think in those terms or because they lack the ability to say "no" to disadvantageous work. Submitting to social pressure, again.
Don’t do, or ask for, free mentoring because it’s work and work should be paid for! That's Jane's advice. But, here is the most important point...mentoring is distinct from work. Let's see if you can pass this test…
- Is there a difference between a doctor treating a patient and that same doctor helping a trainee doctor become a better doctor?
- Is there a difference between a builder delivering materials to a building site for a client and that same builder talking to his friend who’s starting his own building company?
- Is there a difference between a farmer selling his produce and that same farmer visiting his neighbor to talk about better farming practices?
- Is there a difference between a beauty therapist performing a facial for a client and that same beauty therapist speaking at a school for trainee beauty therapists?
If you answered those questions, ‘yes’ then, you can distinguish work from mentoring. Work is an obvious source of income; it’s the manifestation of the expertise you personally have developed and that creates value for your customer; if they benefit from it then it’s fair to ask for recognition of that benefit by payment. But, expertise typically is built on the history of your profession, from the work done by your predecessors...who are not billing you for the benefit you gained from their experience. If previous generations of engineers, doctors, beauty therapists, and town planners refused to write down and share their discoveries just because they weren’t going to be directly paid to reveal their expertise, each new generation would start from zero and civilization would evolve at an even slower pace than it does. Mentoring the next generation of your profession is paying your debt to the previous one whereas clients are paying for the work you performed that value added at this point in time.
Mentoring needn’t be a drain; as mentioned, there are benefits besides money. Mentoring can refine your professional understanding, add prestige to your career, it can be succession planning, networking, it can develop your industry, and it can bring satisfaction. But, as with most things in life, how you do something matters as much as what you do. Jane says that, because she is a feminist she is “expected to be tirelessly helpful to other women.” For what it’s worth, I do expect her to be helpful to other women but, I don’t expect her to be tireless. She says she cannot endlessly have coffee dates, read manuscripts and judge competitions because it’s exhausting and impoverishing. Once again, do these things only to the extent that they are not exhausting or empoverishing...there's no need to apologize for being human with legitimate limited resources.
To the extent that this is a feminist issue of equality, if men have dominated the workplace, one of the reasons is precisely because they have freely given their support to younger men and stacked the workplace-deck against incoming women. Advising women not to give or ask for ‘free’ mentoring compounds this unfairness. The real difference between men and women on this issue is the why and the how rather than the what; men perform work and mentoring, for money and for strategic purposes and they seem able to do it, (or decline it), with less anguish than women. If Jane is weary (her sign-off in the article) perhaps it’s more from agonizing over what other people expect and how they might judge her than from mentoring per se’. I would encourage successful women to be keen mentors, clear on the kind of women they would like to mentor and the vision they have for infusing their industry with more women. And potential mentees can help by being prepared and diligent future leaders.