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GRAWA President’s Message: Mentoring an important part of helping ensure success

On May 28, the members of the Greater Rochester Association for Women Attorneys lit up the City Grill as we celebrated our the installation of our new board. The room was full of excitement and warmth as members, new and old, connected with the community we all cherish.Paperno,-Jill

At the dinner, keynote speaker Justice Erin Peradotto, one of our Appellate Division, Fourth Department judges, shared her experiences with and suggestions for women attorneys. Her message was a powerful one – as women we still have a way to go before we reach professional equality with men, and we must provide strong support for each other in order to get there.

One way to enhance our likelihood of success is to engage in mentoring, both as mentors and mentees. Mentors can provide legal advice, of course, but mentoring is so much more. A mentor can help you navigate the business and legal culture and understand the dynamics. As I learned during one statewide Women’s Bar Association meeting from other GRAWA members, there are aspects to etiquette in a large firm that are not intuitive.

Court etiquette is often unnatural, and must be learned as well. At one point in my career I learned that many men in a local office were paid more than the women hired at the same time because when hired, the men asked for a higher pay rate and the women, less comfortable and familiar in the hiring practices, and with no one to advise them, did not.

To advance, one must know these things. But who will teach you if your coworkers are your competitors or your peers?

“Lean In,” the book and movement started by Sheryl Sandberg, now includes a “Lean In for Graduates” website. A recent post related to mentoring suggested, “Don’t ask, ‘will you be my mentor?’ Mentors select protégés based on their performance and potential. So shift your thinking from ‘If I get a mentor, I’ll excel’ to ‘If I excel, I’ll get a mentor.’”

In “Lean In” Sandberg wrote, “I realized that searching for a mentor has become the professional equivalent of waiting for Prince Charming. We all grew up on the fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty,” which instructs young women that if they just wait for their prince to arrive, they will be kissed and whisked away on a white horse to live happily ever after. Now young women are told that if they can just find the right mentor, they will be pushed up the ladder and whisked away to the corner office to live happily ever after. Once again, we are teaching women to be too dependent on others.”

Susan Adams, a Forbes contributor, agreed with Sandberg in her article, “10 Things Sheryl Sandberg Gets Exactly Right in ‘Lean In,’” published in 2013, suggests seeking specific problem-solving advice from potential mentors without asking them to be mentors.

Although I am a big fan of Sheryl Sandberg and “Lean In,” I disagree with this position. Mentors help their mentees excel. Mentors provide more than specific problem-solving advice. And for women, especially women working in fields that have traditionally been the province of men, the opportunity to network and learn the more subtle aspects of how business is done may be elusive. Why not try to get a mentor in order to guide you to that place of excellence? Or to advance in your field?

Barbara Frankel, senior vice president and executive editor of DiversityInc.com expresses why mentors are important, especially for women and other underrepresented groups. In her May 2013 article, “Sheryl Sandberg’s Message on Mentoring is Wrong – And Dangerous,” Frankel wrote, “If Sandberg’s logic follows, there will be no change in the very status quo she wants to ‘revolutionize:’ men (and I’ll add white men) holding on for dear life to their vastly disproportionate share of leadership positions. She admits, and I agree, that people mentor and sponsor those who have common interests and who remind them of themselves. That leaves women — and Blacks, Latinos, Asians, American Indians, LGBT people and people with disabilities — out in the cold.

“If women have to ‘lean in’ and excel before they solicit mentors and sponsors — and if women should be careful not to annoy powerful women by ‘bothering them’ for advice — only white men are going to use mentoring and sponsoring to their advantage.” Frankel goes on to describe successful mentoring programs that have contributed to a dramatic increase in female retention and promotions. (By the way, the DiversityInc.com website is worth a bit of surfing.)

Frankel recognizes that mentoring is a two way street. Mentees clearly derive benefit from the support and knowledge shared by a mentor. They may learn that the old ways are not always bad ways. But for those of us who try to act as mentors, there are benefits as well. We learn new ways of doing things, new ways of explaining things, and how to be better teachers.

So how do we develop these important relationships? I have a friend whose daughter walked up to a person she’d seen speak, and asked that person to be her mentor. But it’s not often that easy. However, GRAWA’s Women’s Connection Committee, chaired by Noreen Connolly and Connie Walker, with a big assist from newly appointed Court of Claims Judge Debra Martin, are in the process of developing a mentoring and support network to make the mentee-mentor connection easier.

As these experienced and talented attorneys (and judge) develop their plans, and partner with younger attorneys, the mentoring process, so helpful to all of us, will become another part of the GRAWA experience, which already provides support to so many of its members.

Jill Paperno is the 33rd president of GRAWA. She is the second assistant public defender at the Monroe County Public Defender’s Office, where she has practiced for over 28 years.