Reciprocal Mentoring: getting comfortable with being uncomfortable talking about race

With the launch of the AHUA's Reciprocal Mentoring Programme, Dr Kavita Powley, Head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion discusses learnings from a similar scheme hosted by her institution, City, University of London.

The AHUA Reciprocal Mentoring Programme is open to AHUA members and senior professional service staff of colour to build mutual understanding between those currently in senior leadership roles and aspiring leaders.

City, University of London, recently achieved the Race Equality Charter (REC); one of the few Universities to receive the prestigious accreditation demonstrating its commitment to improving race equity. As Universities embark on their Race Equality Charter journeys, it is imperative for Senior Leaders to fully endorse the Charter and start having those difficult conversations about race.

Frankly, to advance and improve race equity, diversity and inclusion, we all need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

One innovative, and some may say radical, way of doing this is by reverse mentoring. Having done some research both within the public and private sector on existing reverse mentoring schemes, it was clear that they put too much burden on Staff of Colour, and raised questions of ‘what’s in it for me?

Reverse vs. Reciprocal

This inspired the innovative Reciprocal Mentoring Scheme at City, a unique platform for Senior Leaders and Staff of Colour to have an open dialogue on racial inequalities, staff lived experiences and challenges of working in higher education. A pilot scheme took place in academic year 2019-2020.

Reciprocal mentoring has advantages over reverse mentoring. It fosters mutually beneficial partnerships that help staff to build trusted relationships and creates safe spaces to hold the uncomfortable conversations that are needed to create systemic cultural change. 

As this particular scheme had not been tried or tested before in the sector, piloting the scheme was important. All Senior Leaders, including the President, were encouraged to participate, which demonstrated their commitment to endorsing race equity and facilitating an inclusive culture of learning.  Advertising the scheme via internal communication created interest in 17 members of Staff of Colour for the pilot.

Given the sensitive nature of the scheme, substantial research on traditional mentoring, reciprocal mentoring outside of HE, and reverse mentoring was undertaken to create clear guidance, reading lists on racial inequalities in HE, language and terminology, and finding the most suitable training for both sets of mentors.

Bespoke training was created in partnership with a facilitator who had expertise in both mentoring and coaching and specialised in anti-racist training. The training was tailored for City specifically and training for the Senior Leaders was different from that provided to Staff of Colour but related and interlinked in regard to the mentoring process, what to expect and how best to prepare. Concerns and questions were also addressed during the training.

Power Imbalances

Organisational Development supported with matching the SLT mentor and the Staff of Colour mentor; because the scheme was reciprocal there were no mentees. It was important to emphasise this to remind participants of the equal partnership and to reduce power imbalances. Senior Leader mentors were expected to learn as much as the Staff of Colour mentors, and vice versa.  

Meetings with Staff of Colour were held to ensure they were happy with their suggested match before the formal introduction was made, as we were mindful about ensuring that Staff of Colour were comfortable with the partnership. This was important with the potential power imbalance that could have become an issue. Thankfully, no one was averse to their match – which would have been awkward! Mentors were then introduced to their pair and given all information needed including the guidance and training notes, and everyone signed up to a year mentoring, meeting every 4-6 weeks in a neutral setting, ie, not the Senior Leader mentor’s office, which again would highlight a power imbalance.  

Evaluation of the scheme revealed some significant learning. Overall, the scheme met its aims and feedback suggested that the partnerships enabled accountability and encouragement to grow personally and professionally in an integrated process. The mutuality of reciprocal mentoring broke down barriers and prejudices, allowing for mentoring relationships to dispel hierarchical and racial biases. For example, some participants said:

‘It felt like we were both challenging each other. I didn’t feel like I had to skirt around the issues, I felt openness and frankness so a positive experience to date.’ 

“It’s a rare opportunity to have access to somebody with senior leadership experience and a great opportunity to have your voice heard and to help bring about change for yourself and others.”

Participants also highlighted that the prework, reading and anti-racist training were imperative for Senior Leaders embarking on the scheme, as some pairings experienced challenges in the power imbalance and uncomfortable conversations where Staff of Colour carried the labour of educating the White Senior Leader involved. The value of regular check-ins by the scheme’s facilitators was another important take away, to ensure that participants had a safe space to express any concerns and be supported during the mentorship, and for facilitators to assess that the objectives of the scheme were being met successfully .

Recommendations for Race Equity

A key recommendation for higher education institutions is to be bold and innovative with their race equity initiatives, as they can lead to further opportunities that foster inclusivity. For instance, several successes were had from the scheme, including an award for a Good Practice Grant to run the scheme again. This grant supported the production of two further deliverables; an online toolkit of antiracist guidance and short films called ‘spotlight stories’ which showcased the experiences of participants, thus providing a unique and valuable insight into the experiences of the mentors that participated.  Addressing the feedback, the scheme has been improved and extended to staff on junior grades.

A national scheme facilitated by the Association of Heads of University Administration is continuing the aims of City’s reciprocal mentoring scheme and has just been launched.

Reciprocal mentoring provides a unique platform for academic and professional services Staff of Colour to strengthen their career goals, professional skills and achieve their full potential through the cultivation of cross-departmental and senior-led relationships. The scheme also creates an open and confidential dialogue on racial inequalities in higher education and enables Senior Leaders to enhance their understanding of the potential cultural barriers faced by colleagues.

Reciprocal mentoring is a dynamic way of fostering inclusivity, a sense of belonging and for all to bring their authentic selves to work and study; an ambition that all Universities should be aspiring to. 

Learn more and apply for the AHUA Reciprocal Mentoring Programme here.