Skip to Content

Association of American Medical Colleges Tomorrow's Doctors, Tomorrow's Cures®

Looking for Member-only Content?

opened lockSign in here to update your member information.

Feature: Mentoring Systems: Benefits and Challenges of Diverse Mentoring Partnerships

By Carole Bland, Ph.D., Anne Taylor M.D., and Sindie Shollenberger P.T., M.S.

Faculty at all career stages benefit from strategies designed to maintain and increase their productivity and joy in their careers. One of the most important of those strategies is mentoring.

Studies of mentoring in the health professions find real benefits for faculty at all career stages. Compared to those without mentors, faculty with mentors demonstrate higher levels of the following success factors:

  • Teaching effectiveness, evidenced by declines in teaching anxiety and improved student ratings of teaching effectiveness (5);
  • Research productivity (1, 2);
  • Professional socialization and interactions with colleagues (3); and
  • Salary levels; and
  • Satisfaction with salary and promotion (4).

Boice's research on new faculty shows important findings in organizing effective faculty mentoring systems (6):

Mentoring is not dependent on personality, but rather on tasks and activities that the mentor and protégé do together
Early and enduring mentoring is most beneficial; mentoring pairs/teams continue to meet regularly and progress when given "nudging"

  • Mentoring programs require a coordinator;
  • Using mentors from outside the protégé's department is very effective;
  • Multiple mentors may be of value to faculty, providing different aspects of career development;
  • Less than 25 percent of faculty find mentors on their own — those who do are most often white males;
  • Formal mentoring is, overall, more effective than informal mentoring; and
  • Peer mentoring and informal mentoring may be of special importance to women, minority, and more senior faculty.

These findings suggest important elements of establishing formal mentoring systems, especially those that support effective mentoring across faculty of different backgrounds. Although there really is no perfect set of behaviors that describe the ideal mentor and protégé, and the behaviors are likely to vary with the purpose of the mentoring relationship, certain actions are more likely to help mentors and protégés build and maintain a successful relationship.

Challenges to Effective Mentoring: A Cross-Gender, Cross-Racial Perspective

Of approximately 114,000 full time medical faculty in 2005, 52,000 held the rank of associate professor or higher. Of these senior faculty, 33,000 were white men. (9) Thus, the majority of mentoring relationships will have a white male in the mentor role. Protégés, however, are increasingly likely to be women and minorities. The literature and demographics make clear that, on average, these groups are less likely to succeed and be satisfied in academic medicine. It seems they encounter additional challenges along the way. Mentor-protégé teams with different backgrounds of gender, race, and ethnicity will benefit from concerted mindfulness of strategies and open discussion of differences in world views and experiences.

It is important to note that the following sections on challenges to effective mentoring relationships are based on generalizations, and individuals within a group may not identify with the ascribed generalizations. Each person will bring a unique set of circumstances that will shape the mentoring relationship.

Establish Trust

A quality mentoring relationship requires trust and effort from both members, which comes about when the mentor and protégé welcome the opportunity to learn about differences. Mentoring partners with similar backgrounds may easily perceive each other as trustworthy and predictable since they share many commonalities. In a cross-gender or cross-cultural mentoring relationship, there could be a lack of comfort due to the uncertainty of the other person's culture, experiences, values, and behaviors. (10)

Keep in mind that people have different perceptions of reality, and have been formed by unique experiences. Thomas urges mentors not to subscribe to negative stereotypes of minorities by withholding support until the potential protégé proves "worthy of investment." (11)

On the other hand, minority partners need to meet a non-minority group mentor halfway in the relationship. (7) A deeper understanding of each other's worldviews will promote learning and growth for both parties.

Communicate Openly and Often

The mentoring pair who feel comfortable with one another are able to address with more ease the personal and professional challenges that may arise. Thomas performed hundreds of case studies during a three-year study of three major corporations. (11) He found that minorities who were mentored by white males who acknowledged race as a potential barrier advanced farther because the mentors could help their protégés overcome obstacles.

It is the rare instance when two relative strangers can comfortably discuss sensitive topics early in a relationship. Cross-race and cross-gender relationships can be fragile, and thus participants may be less willing or able to discuss sensitive issues. (11) It may be helpful to begin with conversations centered on safe topics such as professional goals, meeting schedules, professional associations to join and functions to attend, and basic departmental, school, and university structure. After some time, there may be sufficient comfort to move forward onto other topics, such as those that address differences in gender, culture, family circumstances, and generation.

See Each Other as Individuals

Check assumptions at the door and resist viewing each other as part of a category based on gender, race, age, or other characteristics. Each of us is on a unique journey and has unique mentoring needs. Both mentor and protégé should remember that a comparison of their respective values, worldviews, and interpersonal styles will not always reflect the same image. Interpersonal styles vary across gender and race, in part because women and minorities are allowed a narrower band of acceptable assertive behaviors. (12) Simple clarification by the mentor such as "this approach worked for me, but may not work the same for you..." is a good way of providing guidance without assuming the approach would be best suited for the protégé.

Mentors and protégés need to have an understanding of their relative views on competition versus collaboration as a mode of operating. Both may need to stretch beyond familiar behaviors and strategies to succeed. In addition, having multiple mentors for guidance and support in a variety of personal and professional areas decreases the chance of an individual mentoring relationship proving inadequate.

Take the Initiative

Some potential protégés may hesitate to seek assistance or advice because they do not want to be judged as incapable of making it on their own, or may perceive themselves as a burden to others more senior and more accomplished. This perspective was evident in the results of the focus groups of faculty conducted at the University of Pennsylvania as highlighted in the Faculty Vitae Fall 2006 Leadership Lesson.

Such avoidance behavior can result in junior faculty member being hesitant to seek a mentoring relationship, and making conscious efforts to limit the amount of time spent with the mentor. Wise mentors will quell possible worries of protégés by assuring them that mentoring provides a beneficial learning experience for both partners.

Publicly support protégés and help them expand professional networks

Mentors should visibly promote the scholarship of protégés. They can do this through public endorsement of achievement, coaching in graceful self-promotion, and introducing protégés to colleagues who can broaden their networks.

Public endorsement increases confidence to take risks, network, and explore new avenues for personal and professional growth (11). Mentors also can help protégés learn effective methods of graceful self-promotion. Women and minority faculty, in particular, may be reluctant to tout their own achievements. Networks are a vital part of professional development. Unfortunately, research has shown that the networks of women are not as high in quality or effectiveness as the networks of men (13, 14). How can a mentor create opportunities for protégés to gain access to important networks?

  • Invite protégés as colleagues to meetings and events;
  • Introduce protégés to colleagues and peers inside and outside of the department and institution;
  • Encourage protégés to collaborate with influential others on projects; and
  • Include protégés in informal social activities, which provide a forum for informal "work talk."

Manage Power Differentials and Appropriate Boundaries

Power is so historically ingrained in certain societal and structural positions that it often goes unrecognized. Mentoring partners must distinguish appropriate positional power from social power ascribed by gender and race. Together, the pair can ensure that the illegitimate aspects of power based on socialization, stereotypes, and attributions do not act as a barrier. For the relationship to be maintained at a professional level it is important that boundaries be discussed, established and respected. Perceived risk of sexual involvement and concerns about public image may inhibit a mentoring relationship (15, 16). At the same time, keep in mind that should a sexual harassment claim arise, the assumption is that a "consensual relationship" is not possible when there is a power differential in the professional relationship.

Cross-gender mentoring relationships that are also cross-cultural have additional dimensions of racial taboos, which exist as a result of the intersection of race and gender dynamics. According to Thomas (10), racial taboos are the non-discussed connotations related to historical relationships between black women and white men, and white women and black men. Racial taboos can act as barriers to establishing an effective cross-cultural mentoring relationship. The University of Minnesota's sexual harassment policy defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical behavior of a sexual nature when such conduct influences employment or academic decisions, interferes with an employee's work, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work or learning environment. Should a sexual harassment claim arise, the assumption is that a "consensual relationship" is not possible when there is a power differential in the professional relationship.

Embrace New Opportunities for Personal and Professional Growth

Mentoring is about learning and growing in a variety of arenas for everyone involved. Facing new challenges and experiences is a catalyst for growth! Thomas found that cross-race mentoring relationships allowed mentors and protégés to "explore other kinds of differences, thus broadening the perspectives of both parties." (11)

Mentors may derive a sense of personal satisfaction from passing on their knowledge and may find their careers rejuvenated from exposure to the energy and ideas of protégés. (17) They benefit from building support networks, self-satisfaction, job-related self-focused benefits, and job-related other-focused benefits . (18)

Developing mentoring relationships is, perhaps, most important because experience as a mentor or protégé positively predicts future intentions to mentor. In a study of 275 executives, Ragins and Scandura found that executives with experience as mentors or protégés anticipated greater benefits and fewer costs to mentoring. (19) These findings highlight the importance of initiating mentoring relationships in order to perpetuate the cycle of mentoring and spread the mentoring wealth.


1. Bland CJ, Schmitz CC. Characteristics of the Successful Researcher and Implications for Faculty Development. J Med Educ. 1986;61:22-31.

2. Byrne MW, Keefe MR. Building Research Competence in Nursing through Mentoring. J Nurs Scholarsh. 2002;34:391-396.

3. Corcoran M, Clark SM. Professional Socialization and Contemporary Career Attitudes of Three Faculty Generations. Research in Higher Education. 1984;20:131-153.

4. Melicher R. The Perceived Value of Research and Teaching Mentoring by Finance Academicians. Financial Practice and Education. 2000:166-174.

5. Williams LS. The Effects of a Comprehensive Teaching Assistant Training Program on Teaching Anxiety and Effectiveness. Res Higher Ed. 1991;32:585-598.

6. Boyle P, Boice B. Systematic Mentoring for New Faculty Teachers and Graduate Teaching Assistants. Innovative Higher Education. 1998;22:157-179.

7. Bowman SR, Kite ME, Branscombe NR, Williams S. Developmental Relationships of Black Americans in the Academy. In: Murrell AJ, Crosby FJ, Ely RJ, eds. Mentoring Dilemmas: Developmental Relationships within Multicultural Organizations. Vol 0. 0th ed. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates; 1999:21-46.

8. Johnson-Bailey J, Cervero RM. Cross-cultural Mentoring as a Context for Learning. New Directions for Adult & Continuing Education. 2002:15.

9. Women in U.S. Academic Medicine, Statistics and Medical School Benchmarking. AAMC 2004-2005.

10. Thomas DA. Mentoring and Irrationality: The Role of Racial Taboos. Hum Resour Manage. 1989;28:279-290.

11. Thomas DA. The Truth about Mentoring Minorities: Race Matters. Harv Bus Rev. 2001;79:98-107.

12. Carr PL, Bickel J, Inui TS, eds. Taking Root in a Forest Clearing: A Resource Guide for Medical Faculty. Boston: Boston University School of Medicine; 2004.

13. Etzkowitz H, Kemelgor C, Uzzi B. Athena Unbound: The Advancement of Women in Science and Technology. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press; 2000.

14. Kemelgor C, Etzkowitz H. Overcoming Isolation: Women's Dilemmas in American Academic Science. Minerva: A Review of Science, Learning & Policy. 2001;39:153-174.

15. Noe RA. Women and Mentoring: A Review and Research Agenda. Academy of Management Review. 1988;13:65.

16. Ragins BR, Cotton JL. Easier Said than Done: Gender Differences in Perceived Barriers to Gaining a Mentor. Academy of Management Journal. 1991;34:939.

17. Ragins BR, Scandura TA. Gender Differences in Expected Outcomes of Mentoring Relationships. Academy of Management Journal. 1994;37:957.

18. Allen TD, Poteet ML, Burroughs SM. The Mentor's Perspective: A Qualitative Inquiry and Future Research Agenda. Journal of Vocational Behavior. 1997/8;51:70-89.

19. Ragins BR, Scandura, TA. Burden or Blessing? Expected Costs and Benefits of Being a Mentor. Journal of Organizational Behavior. 1999;20:493-509.

Faculty Vitae

Please note that some links or e-mail addresses have been disabled, may be omitted, or may not load correctly due to changes in content availability or an individual's institution affiliation/contact information.

To inquire about updates to information published in Faculty Vitae, please e-mail Valarie Clark at

Articles by Author

Articles by Topic