Call to action: Mentor people who are unlike you
In the quest for mentorship, we often seek individuals like ourselves — mentors who look like us, think like us, or have a common life experience.
While learning from mentors who share similar perspectives is critical for personal growth and career development, I suspect that this inherent tendency contributes to the lack of diversity we witness in medicine and scientific research.
As a young, aspiring scientist, I was rarely exposed to Black teachers. And I am certain that, without the influence of a father in medicine, the pathway to science would have seemed too foreign to pursue. It was not until the later years of college and medical school that I had the opportunity to learn from and interact with Black professors and mentors, an opportunity that as recently as this month was blatantly taken from aspiring Black physicians at an established medical institution.
Even when I did not have much in common with these experienced leaders, there was an empathy reassurance — I knew that, like me, when they walked into a room, the first thing people noticed about them was the color of their skin. Much of the ease and solace of those relationships was that shared core experience. It was the innate context on which all discussions about career were based and a major motivation to continue to seek mentors that looked like me as I continued my educational journey.
Fast-forward a few decades. As a faculty member in academia who works directly with students and trainees, I now appreciate the potential hazards of this approach to mentorship.
First, it automatically puts students and trainees from underrepresented backgrounds at a resource disadvantage. Due to low numbers of people of color in science, medicine and leadership roles, there are fewer mentor options when mentees restrict their mentor search to faculty of a similar background. The result is often competition for one of few potential mentors, or, worse, an assumption that mentorship is not available for everyone.
Second, the approach narrows the world view of both mentors and mentees — by choosing to work only with others from a similar life experience, we reinforce existing biases and limit exposure to other perspectives and approaches. Third, our scientific fields remain relatively homogeneous as a consequence of constant cycles of replication of only individuals already represented.
This homogeneity in academia and medicine can be broken down through our efforts to mentor outside our backgrounds but must also be broken down by the hiring and promotion of under-represented minority (URM) leaders, bucking the system we saw on display at Tulane. All aspiring physicians must see diversity in leadership, ingraining in them to respect all viewpoints.
As we consider mechanisms to optimize mentorship for URMs in science and medicine, there are many objectives that my non-URM and URM colleague mentors should take into consideration.
Diversify Your Mentee Pool
It should be a goal of every person in a position of influence to mentor people who do not look like them. Many of us — intentionally or unintentionally — advise mentees of the same gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and background. While this gravitational pull is only natural, we must work actively to also identify mentees who are nothing like ourselves.
If all senior physicians, scientists and people of power were able to accomplish this goal, we would instantly and collectively engage a more diverse pool of mentees and help increase diversity in our fields.
Early and consistent exposure to science and research is an effective means to attract and retain individuals in science. Mentors play a critical function to make mentees aware of opportunities and to encourage participation, and this function may be most crucial for URM students and trainees who do not often see themselves represented in science and medicine. All mentors — regardless of background — can help facilitate the development of a mentee’s identity in science through early and frequent interaction.
Embrace Mentorship Networks:
The traditional mentorship model is a one-to-one relationship between mentee and mentor. In an alternative approach, mentors can help mentees develop a network of mentors in which each mentor provides specific perspective and expertise. One mentor might provide guidance on research pursuits while another models success in aspects of personal life.
In the multiple-mentor approach, mentees benefit from various influences on their personal and professional development over time. Especially among URM mentees who face unique social stressors and have distinct mentoring needs, it might not always be possible for one mentor to meet all needs. The approach also benefits mentors in a fast-paced academic setting in which mentors are often managing several roles and mentees.
Emphasize Longitudinal Relationships:
Long-term mentor-mentee dyads allow mentors and mentees to cultivate stronger rapport. Connectedness over time facilitates accomplishing short- and long-term priorities and goals. In addition, it encourages trust and opportunity to engage in conversations about historical injustices, imposter syndrome, microaggressions and minority tax. A mentor with an extensive perspective of her or his mentee’s challenges and ambitions can help manage many of these hardships, serve as a constant reminder of ultimate career goals, and better inform decisions and next steps.
Toward Diversity in Science and Medicine
To increase representation of under-represented racial and ethnic minorities in science and medicine, we must evolve current mentorship models in academic medicine. Exposure to URM faculty is essential and can be a critical source of inspiration and motivation for students and trainees of color. However, the mentorship capacity of URM faculty is limited by a lack of diversity in academia. Non-minority faculty members can and should provide resources and opportunities for URM students and trainees to thrive.
The principles of effective mentorship for URMs are inclusivity, trust, access, and early and consistent interaction. By embracing these principles and expanding our reach beyond those in whom we immediately see ourselves, we can increase diversity among science and health professionals. Doing so is urgent and critical, especially now in light of suboptimal representation and increasing threats to the very existence of URM physicians and researchers in this nation.
- Beech BM, et al. Acad Med. 2013;doi:10.1097/ACM.0b013e31828589e3.
- Gomez LE, et al. J Natl Med Assoc. 2019;doi: 10.1016/j.jnma.2019.01.006.
- National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The Science of Effective Mentorship in STEMM. 2019. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/25568.
- Tulane physician who sued over alleged discrimination loses residency directorship. WDSU.com; February 12, 2021; https://www.wdsu.com/article/tulane-physician-who-sued-over-alleged-discrimination-loses-residency-directorship/35495252. Accessed February 15, 2021.
- For more information:
- Folasade P. May, MD, PhD, MPhil, is the Director of Quality Improvement in Gastroenterology at UCLA Health, a health services researcher, and a co-director of the Global Health Education Program at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. She runs the May Laboratory, working to improve health disparities and patient outcomes. May can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.