We've always been told that if we work hard and follow the rules, anything is possible. So why does everything — from home-ownership to the dream job — feel further and further out of reach? SCAMbition is an exploration of where we live right now; it's the stark reality that we can't afford a down payment while we're paying down student loan debt, that the dream job might be no job at all, and that ambition might just be the biggest scam of all. Of course, the only way out of a scam is through it and so while the future might not look like we thought it would, we're ready to reshape it in a way that benefits everyone, not just a select few.
Chidera, 28, is a junior doctor in the UK hoping to specialize in surgery. After four years of studying and training, she is seeking a career mentor to help her reach the next step. Ideally, this would be someone with a wealth of knowledge and experience in her chosen field who could guide her closer to her goals. But that is far easier said than done.
The challenges are due in part to her chosen field. "A lot of the people I’d like to have as mentors are incredibly busy and so finding time to really connect can be difficult," she explains. Building relationships takes time and it can be hard to do when you’re regularly rotating hospitals during training. Plus, the subspecialty that Chidera’s most interested in — trauma surgery — is fairly new to the UK, which makes finding clear advice even more difficult.
However, many of the difficulties she is facing are not unique. "A significant part of career progression can be impacted by who you know, so a mentor that can also open these doors and add some credibility to my presence would be really helpful," Chidera explains. She adds: "As a Black woman in a field where most people do not have my background, having someone to discuss the unavoidable intricacies of how that impacts my work life would be valuable."
No matter what career path you’re taking, a mentor can seem like the ultimate ace up your sleeve. According to a survey of 3,000 people conducted in 2019 by Olivet Nazarene University, 76% of those surveyed think mentors are important, and "people with mentors are happier at their current jobs than those without." However, only 37% of respondents admitted to having a mentor.
So how do you find a mentor, let alone a good one? This has never been easy to do, but 2022 has made it harder than ever to find the time and the security to develop mentor/mentee relationships as we continue to feel the fallout that the pandemic has had on workers. We spoke to different people from a range of professions about their experiences with mentorship, from searching for a mentor to having mentored for years, to get an insight into the perks (and challenges) of mentoring in 2022.
For people about to enter the workforce like 22-year-old fashion journalism MA student Hannah, a mentor could be the difference between breaking into an industry with confidence and remaining on the outside looking in. But trying to find one has only confirmed her fears about the elitism of creative industries.
"I find that everybody seems to have the right connections, or has a family friend who is in the industry and acts as their mentor," she tells Refinery29. "When you don’t have these relationships, it is hard to know what to do and how to go about finding them."
This isn’t the case for every industry, especially for those who can get their foot in the door. Alexis, 27, works in cybersecurity and tells Refinery29 that beginning with her first job, she has been lucky enough to have the opportunity to cultivate relationships with coworkers, managers, and "even peers with different career paths than my own." She adds, "Over time, this naturally led to mentorship from those willing to give it. I’ve found that some of the most valuable mentorship experiences I’ve had came when I’ve connected with mentors over different points in our respective careers."
This makes forging relationships at the beginning of your career all the more urgent, but Alexis says that this challenge has led her to receive more meaningful support. "I think one of the biggest benefits to me was always the ability to connect with someone on a personal level. I’ve been so fortunate to work with some strong, badass ladies in tech, so to have some of those women as mentors has been a huge, huge inspiration to me. It shows me what the path forward can look like."
Some industries have a more standardized approach to mentorship than others. This is the case for attorneys, says Natalie, a 30-year-old lawyer who says that both mentoring and being mentored have been essential for her career as being mentored helped her navigate the confusing route from post-graduation to taking the bar.
"In a self-employed legal profession like mine, the benefits of mentorship cannot be overstated," she explains. "Without one-on-one or small group mentors, it might be very difficult to know how to steer our practice development. Through mentors, we learn and attempt to follow in the footsteps of successful senior lawyers who have been there themselves and have committed to help us thrive within a very demanding vocation."
However, a more standardized approach to mentorship isn’t always better. Ophelia, 29, works in advertising and has had drastically different experiences of mentorship when it has been prescriptive compared to when it was on her own terms.
"I've hated all official mentors who have been assigned to me by work," she says. "Meeting always felt like a chore and we never got off on the right foot, despite them being great people. Something about the artificiality of the setup blocked a genuine connection. By comparison, all my meaningful mentor relationships have blossomed from working together — building trust and affinity that now acts as a long-term base for understanding each other, even now that we're in different jobs."
If you have a lack of education or privilege it all becomes harder. I didn't go to private school but I implicitly learned how to network when I got to university.
Now, she sees opportunities for mentorship all around her. "You can find it anywhere if you're looking (though I always keep professional boundaries). One mentee is the son of a man who drove me in an Uber once and told me his son wanted to get into the creative industry. A couple of my mentees are people I've kept in touch with from previous jobs, or who work with me now. One mentee just got in touch on LinkedIn."
Ophelia adds that connection, support, and a sense of community are vital in her experience. "[Being a mentor and being mentored] is a basic part of community in my opinion and workplaces don't give people enough support. Advertising, in particular, is exhausting and exploitative and you need people to help you game the system. My mentors paid it forward to me; it's my responsibility to do the same. I also just want to see my mentees fly."
For people who face barriers in the workplace due to systemic inequalities (whether it's a matter of race, class, gender, sexuality, or ability), mentorship can be a crucial step toward balancing the scales. But as Ophelia explains, the same inequalities that make mentorship particularly useful can also make it more difficult to access.
"If you have a lack of education or privilege it all becomes harder. I didn't go to private school but I implicitly learned how to network when I got to university. All the private school kids were highly adept at building shallow (but still meaningful) relationships and then benefited from those wide networks once we all graduated, manifesting in internships, job offers, coffees with execs who are friends with their parents, and so on."
Lindz, a 31-year-old in the entertainment industry, adds that if an individual can speak to your experience, they may inherently have less capacity to act as a mentor.
"As a queer and trans nonbinary person, I can say I’ve only ever had one trans mentor and it was just an okay fit. Marginalized folks have far less access to mentorship because the people who can help them best are probably also marginalized in similar ways and are busy fighting their own battles, let alone helping someone come up through theirs."
Given how invaluable a mentor can be for an individual, the fact that the current working climate is making it harder for people to form meaningful working relationships and the significance of mentorship for getting marginalized people into different industries, it begs the question: Should mentoring be something you pay for?
Adding mentorship on top of day-to-day tasks is hard enough, let alone when someone is already burned out. You want to prioritize it, of course, but it's a hard thing to juggle sometimes.
For some, like hairstylist Nathalie, 34, it’s an easy yes. "I am a strong believer that everyone should get paid their worth for their work. So I am 100% behind mentors charging for their service. It holds an accountability aspect to it as well." However, she adds that the onus shouldn’t be on individuals. "I also believe that businesses should be providing mentorship to their employees. Whether that be in-house or outsourcing a service."
Payment can also be a way to compensate for the high rates of exhaustion and malaise in the working world. Alexis points to shifts in organizational priorities and worker burnout as significant challenges in 2022 for work generally, and mentorship specifically. "Looking at the tech industry, specifically, I suspect we’ll see organizations trying to make do with fewer new hires and/or fewer people overall in H2 [the second half of the year] than most were anticipating. That leads to folks being stretched thin, so burnout is inevitable. Adding mentorship on top of day-by-day tasks is hard enough, let alone when someone is already burned out. You want to prioritizes it, of course, but it’s a hard thing to juggle sometimes."
While some rightly say that people should be compensated for their work, others point out that paying for mentorship makes it just another form of support that only the wealthy can access.
"Realistically, if you need a mentor, you are likely very junior or starting out in your career, so not on the greatest salary," says Chidera. "Coupling that with the current cost of living crisis, charging for mentorship seems a little cruel."
Ophelia puts it more bluntly: "That's bollocks. Brand it as life coaching or whatever. Mentorship is about being a decent citizen."
What, then, is the solution?
Without significant investment from companies, a community-minded approach by individuals is more important than ever. Where possible, we should focus on helping others within our professional means. Changes in the work landscape and an increase in working from home may limit face-to-face contact but it can also provide an opportunity: it makes it easier to embrace all the tools that are at our disposal, including LinkedIn (no matter how cringe). Be open and generous to your juniors and curious and respectful to your seniors and peers instead of gatekeeping information. This can go a small way towards balancing the scales that set the world of work unfairly against marginalized communities and eventually, through support and community, put pressure on companies to do more to support their workers.