The ‘microaggression maze’: How minority mentorship is taking a hit during coronavirus

This is part of a special package from Digiday about what comes next, looking to the other side of the current crisis to explore the lasting changes that are coming about.

Leonie Annor-Owiredu has spent the last two years interning at different agencies for up to six-month stints at a time. Coronavirus has broken her interning-cycle, she won’t be going back for anymore.

Her experience as a Black woman participating in agency internal mentoring programs hasn’t been glowing. A lack of interaction with time-poor senior people — 15 minute scheduled meetings thinned down to seven — and wooly feedback snarled with unexplained industry jargon has rendered mentoring inadequate for her and her career goals. 

“The mentor and mentee relationship needs to be restructured, it’s about making an investment,” she said. “If people think of their mentees as they do their paying clients, things would change. Both people need to view it as a wonderful opportunity for a cultural and value exchange.”

Her experience of mentorship through third-party organizations like the Creative Mentor Network, however, have been much more constructive, and she still has relationships with two mentors who she was paired with. Now, with fewer internships and placements available and more time to reflect, Annor-Owiredu is freelancing as a writer and cultural strategist.

The coronavirus gap

Mentorship helps people progress in organizations, narrows the opportunity gap and reduces diversity churn. It plays an oversized role for people from minority backgrounds by having someone who can vouch for you in rooms that you can’t access or didn’t know were available. People from lower socioeconomic backgrounds make up 12% of the workforce in the creative industries despite being 44% of the U.K. population, according to the Creative Mentor Network. 

But fewer people going back to an office limits face-to-face interactions and puts a strain on relationships. More junior staffers will miss out on the expertise and guidance of their seniors. Others with poor professional networks may find it difficult to strengthen them, points out economist Tyler Cowen, George Mason University. Coronavirus and the economic downturn has forced deeper inequalities, and those who feel them the sharpest are women, the young and immigrants, he adds.

And remote work could further the racial divide. But the positive desire for change since the Black Lives Matter movement has led to an increase in companies looking to commit to programs — the number of companies contacting the Creative Mentor Network has grown by 80%, said founding director Isabel Farchy.

“The ad industry hasn’t historically been good at making progression available to people from minority ethnic backgrounds,” said Alex Quicho, associate director of cultural intelligence at consumer behavior consultancy, Canvas8. “Much of this is owed to pre-existing prejudice. And the pandemic has the potential to further set that back, for example, new Black and Latinx college graduates in the U.S. are 145% [according to WayUp] more likely to worry about finding remote work.”

Louise Laugenie, communications manager at agency Universal McCann was put forward for two one-off mentor sessions with different organizations over video calls, one session specifically with people from diverse backgrounds. Both were helpful and worthwhile, said Laugenie, who is mixed race and also considers her manager a mentor. But speaking with people outside of her organization gave a broader view of her career options and progression. 

“It can be hard to find a mentor, I wouldn’t have known where to look,” she said. “It also relies so much on the managers to have daily check-ins with the wider team, formal and informal catch-ups.”

Organizations’ taking on new mentor programs, graduate recruitment or training schemes have been put on hold as time and focus shifts to keeping existing employees. U.K. tabloid The Sun and The BBC have halted programs because having so many remote workers makes bringing on new people difficult. 

Others have leaned into more mentoring while people are dislocated. ViacomCBS brought forward the launch of its mentorship program, Pop-Up Mentoring, before the company went into full remote-working mode, to help employees feel connected during a restructuring. Virtual mentoring programs during the pandemic have helped combat feelings of loneliness and dislocation.

Jill Kelly, GroupM’s global chief marketing officer, sees several accelerated shifts in how mentorship is used in a virtual environment. A less formal and more flexible approach with higher frequency snackable interactions, such as 15 minutes around best practices when interviewing. It’s becoming more acts-driven, rooting mentorship in specific gestures, like endorsing five female colleagues on LinkedIn (where men tend to endorse each other more, she said).  

“For younger generations, Black and people of color, remote-working conditions have surfaced other areas that mentorship needs,” said Kelly. “Those notions of validation and feeling of relevance are harder to come by when you don’t walk past you manager who says ‘hey good job, why don’t I get you lunch.’’’

Maria McDowell, head of mentorship at accelerator program for the creative, media and marketing industries at Brixton Finishing School, notes that remote working has made connecting mentees with their mentors easier, but in-person nuances might not be coming through. “How strong that contact is is still yet to be seen,” she said. “Sometimes you need to see mannerisms, see the whites of their eyes, to help build rapport. This could be a case of frequency over quality.”  

McDowell has her worries about the newest generation of staffers joining companies. “When you are young it could be harder to get motivated when not in the office,” she said. “‘How do I show enthusiasm through a Zoom call? If I’m intimidated or shy or, from a political point of view, don’t know how to navigate myself?’ [Some managers] don’t like difficult conversations or aren’t great communicators. It’s a tricky dance.” 

Setting up spaces to thrive

Industries outside media and marketing, like finance and law, view mentorship through a more formal lens, with scheduled meetings and progress tracking. “The ad industry has a tendency to make work very casualized, which means some people can feel left out. Employees from Black, Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds are much more likely to say they have to change their behavior to fit in with company culture. [Companies] struggle to get that balance,” said Canvas8’s Quicho. This partly stems from the view that too much formalized corporate process threatens creativity. Creating a mentorship program is unlikely to inhibit anyone’s ability to be creative, she added.

Even so, most media and marketing industries haven’t been set up for people from minority backgrounds to thrive. 

“[Once you get in] it’s like a microaggression maze you have to go through,” said Annor-Owiredu. “If you call out [a microaggression], you end up becoming the racist sense-checker, being known as that doesn’t serve you. I came here to be a strategist.” 

Most opportunities, like a robust business network or sense of fitting in, are taken for granted by people who are in a dominant group. Business acquaintances are made — and hiring is based — on social circles and forming friendships. 

“Since the 1970s [diversity and inclusion] was funneled into [human resources] and seen as anti-discriminatory, but it didn’t acknowledge structural racism and why that discrimination exists,” said Quicho. “Class and race structures interplay in the U.K. and many of the people in power do not want to relinquish it. Hiring a friend who you know is good doesn’t sound like nepotism to you but it narrows the field.”

People from minority ethnic groups are much more likely than white British employees to say that ‘seeing people like them achieve progress at an organization’ as something that would boost their own careers, according to a 2017 study by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

Yet organizations’ more recent interest in creating equal opportunities for people from diverse backgrounds is not without some wariness.

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“There’s skepticism,” said Annor-Owiredu. “We always think how long will we be top of mind for before we get disregarded again and we’re all fighting for one role, and if one of us gets it, is the environment good enough to help sustain a long-lasting career?”

Diverse workforces are proven to be good for business. Beyond woke points and mercenary interests, brutal honesty about intentions and an emotional investment are needed to make mentoring meaningful, said Annor-Owiredu, who added “companies can think about “how we can make this a space where Black candidates feel amplified and want to be part of.” 

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