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The World of Mentorships for Women in Africa
September 27, 2018

By Ronald Quincy, Ph.D.

As a mentor with the Mandela Washington Fellows program, it is my responsibility to remain in contact with the various mentees I have had the pleasure of advising throughout the years. While visiting these fellows, both men and women, in many locations within sub-Saharan Africa, it has become very clear that effectively managing mentorship relations is a challenge. Recruitment, selection and effective maintenance of mentorship relationships are difficult for both men and women. However, from my experience, I have learned that it is particularly more challenging to establish and sustain mentorships with women.

In Africa, there seems to be an absence of a long-standing culture of mentorship. However, the combination of informal and formal components of mentorship relations is fundamentally essential, especially for those who wish to progress in their own career ambitions. The presence of a mentor, if efficiently executed, could enhance one’s professional journey greatly. Throughout my time with the Mandela Fellows, I have gained incredible insight into the characteristics of effective mentorship. Mentorship roles are intersected by the needs of the mentee to receive guidance and the mentor’s commitment to assist the career pathways of mentees. An effective mentor will properly identify the needs and goals of his or her mentee and contribute to the execution process of such aspirations. In order to carry out these responsibilities, one must maintain a sense of benevolence and genuineness to allow the most productive and developmental outcomes. From my experience, however, I have noticed that various social components from within African culture tend to hinder the ability of an African woman to receive the proper instruction she may need.

Through discussions with numerous Mandela Fellows, I have learned that nearly none of them have actually obtained professional mentorships. Women who do not receive mentorships are the most critical demographic of this type. There are special and unique circumstances that impede effective mentoring processes for women. Among them is the cultural and professional dynamic with regards to gender that continues to disadvantage women and the development of their careers. In a region as culturally rich as Africa, social dynamics vary greatly and lead to distorted expectations of reciprocity. Whether the mentor is a man or a woman also tends to play a critical role in the success of these relationships.

Those who have been able to obtain professional mentorships, however, still tend to complain that their mentors serve as more of a burden than an asset. When a woman’s mentor is a male, problems are usually associated with a camouflage of expectations where he is expectant of certain social benefits in exchange for his professional generosity. Such misunderstandings may create a sense of unwarranted social reciprocity and lead to unhealthy mentorship relations for the woman.

Even with a female mentor, the expectations are not always in alignment with the goals and aspirations of the mentee. Various societal characteristics tend to yield an environment of competition between the female mentor and her mentee both socially and professionally. Instead of approaching her responsibilities as a mentor with a sense of generosity, a female mentor instead tends to act with an increasing sense of caution. She grows to see the mentee as a challenge to her own success in an organization, a tendency due strictly to the inequality of professional opportunities for African women in the workplace.

There are various positive resolutions for these types of challenges that I have found to be most constructive and accommodating for the female mentee. These solutions require professionals to share mentorship practices among one another to discuss techniques that are most conducive to the career advancement for the mentee. This would allow for the expansion of knowledge and encourage discussion amongst potential mentors, not only to advance the quality of mentoring throughout the African region but to increase the presence of these relations in general.

With regards to the formation of unequal expectations and misunderstandings, the most productive solution I can propose is the implementation of mentoring agreements between the mentor and mentee. Through this arrangement, the parties will establish the individual expectations they have and the roles that they will play in order to maintain a positive and rewarding mentorship experience. This will reduce the possibility of improper social exchanges and ensure that the female mentee receives the utmost professional relationship.

Ultimately, the practice of mentorship within sub-Saharan Africa is influenced by both the professional and social traditions within the region. As these components of culture evolve, so does the structure of mentorship. With various efforts and studies, we may be able to augment the presence and significance of mentorship for women in this region.

Ronald L. Quincy, Ph.D. is a professor of professional practice at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy and the academic director for the Civic Leadership Institute for the Mandela Washington Fellowship at Rutgers University.

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The views and opinions expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the YALI Network or the U.S. government. YALI Voices is a series of podcasts, videos and blog posts contributed by members of the YALI Network.