The Importance of Mentoring to Improve Diversity and Inclusion

According to David Clutterbuck (Co-founder of the European Mentoring & Coaching Council) diversity mentoring is an instrument of personal change aimed at helping mentees identify how they and their circumstances could be different; and how they will bring changes to fruition.

Mentoring relationships are powerful. The process of mentoring, and the relationship built over time, supports a long-lasting commitment to diversity and inclusive behaviours.

Diversity mentoring is a developmental process that aims to achieve both individual and organisational change through a shared understanding that differences exist and are perceived as integral to learning, growth, and development.

Like all mentoring relationships diversity mentoring requires an open dialogue so it is essential that both parties are comfortable about revealing their thoughts and concerns. It is vital that the relationship is such that participants feel they can challenge each other’s assumptions, behaviours and actions and suspend judgement about each other, though this can sometimes be difficult.

One of the key factors in getting any mentoring relationship off to a good start is being able to have a respectful curiosity of each other’s worlds and their perspectives. This allows the exploration of different ways of thinking and behaving and in turn provides a fertile ground for mutual learning and growth.

What makes the diversity mentoring relationship work?

A study by the US Minority Corporate Counsel Association (Anon 2003) found that

diverse mentoring relationships that worked had a number of common characteristics

  • established confidence by beginning with work-related issues
  • identified common interests and values;
  • made efforts to learn about each other;
  • showed empathy;
  • were clear about needs and expectations;
  • avoided stereotypes and untested assumptions;
  • risked discomfort to make the relationship work

Positioning difference and disadvantage

An MCCA study found that ‘discussion of race and gender diversity was often avoided when one of the parties was white, even in mentoring relationships, which were strong’. This avoidance can in fact make the other party feel uncomfortable as they then both feel that they have to pretend there isn’t a difference.

To overcome this:

  • Agree, between mentor and mentee, what role the mentee wishes difference to play in the relationship.
  • Agree that mentor and mentee will challenge each other around the role of difference, where appropriate.  So, for example, the mentor might question the mentee’s perception that their failure to achieve a promotion is a result of bias (or vice versa).

Stereotypes and implicit bias

Even if at a rational, conscious level, we are diversity-aware and extend goodwill to people, whom we see as different, at a subconscious level our instinctive responses may be very different. However, the good news is the more we get to know peers from other backgrounds, the more positive our attitudes tend to become.

On the flip side of this, it is possible to be over-empathetic. Relationships have been known to fail because the mentor tried too hard and empathy became sympathy, which was not conducive to a good mentoring conversation.

How do you have diversity related mentoring conversations?

One of the main challenges in diversity related mentoring is how to get the conversation started. For many, talking about diversity and inclusion can be an uncomfortable process as they are afraid that they say the wrong thing or that their experience doesn’t belong in the conversation.

Here are 3 ways to get those conversations started.

  1. Define and think about how you each interpret the term diversity. This is a good way to get the conversation going and to see what your individual perspectives are.
  2. Discuss a news story – there are plenty to choose from daily, whether it is a gender pay gap story, a Paralympic sporting success, a racial injustice or a story relating to the global struggle for LGBT equality.
  3. Learn from each other’s experiences. Swap stories about how you each got to where you are, your current challenges and your ambitions for the future, and any worries you have around the things that could de-rail these ambitions.

Useful Ground Rules

  1. Build agreements that allow mutual feedback about the impact of language and its potential to offend or appear prejudiced.
  2. Develop greater awareness of your own and other people’s reactions to bodylanguage, this can be an important indicator of the impact you are having on another person.
  3. Recognise and respond appropriately to slip ups you make that offends or is inappropriate. No matter how much we want to bury or displace stereotypes, remnants can still surface from time to time.
  4. It’s very easy to back off from saying what needs to be said for fear of giving offence If you do need to give tough feedback ensure it is focused on specific behaviour or actions and doesn’t import broader prejudices.

Mentees who are different from their mentors can find a mentoring relationship challenging at first. Persevering with the relationships and getting to know each other personally can help diverse mentoring relationships to flourish.


Much of the above is from Understanding Diversity Mentoring by David Clutterbuck for more information click here.