update: are my mentors taking advantage of me?

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

Remember the letter-writer whose mentors were pressuring her to do networking favors she didn’t feel comfortable with? Here’s the update.

I first took the commentariat’s advice about the VP speaker request and forwarded the request email to the VP’s administrative assistant. I explained that it was a very valuable program at my alma mater and they would love to have her speak, but so did not feel it was appropriate for me to reach out directly to the VP. The VP’s admin thanked me for the email and said they would follow up directly with the university contact about it. When that mentor reached out to me again to ask for a status, I responded that I had forwarded the request but I am not in a position to ask the VP directly to attend or to give out their contact information. My mentor replied back thanking me and letting me know he has another contact that may be able to ask on his behalf. No bridges burned, no harm, no foul!

The outcome with the other mentor was not as rosy. I did reply back that I couldn’t attend many work day events, and especially this particular workshop. He’s looking for hands-on activities and demos based on what we do in our jobs, and I honestly can’t support that. Not only is it a full day off from work in the middle of the week, but I work at a computer 80% of the day and everything I work on is either company proprietary or export classified, so I don’t have anything to show the students. I tried supporting in the past with very generic tools and data, but it was boring and didn’t excite the students. He was miffed but let it go.

I did, however, work with him to host a group of students on site at my workplace for a tour and presentation. I’ve done this annually for the last 5 years and followed basically the same outline. This year though, he was extremely difficult to work with and demanding of us. This always requires budgetary approval and before I can commit to supporting it, and I requested approval as I have every year. When I did not reply to him within a day (large company red tape!), he started emailing other alumni in other departments asking them to help him out instead. Luckily they knew I had led the event in the past and reached out to me to ask if I was already working it. I replied back to my mentor and his assistant: “To ensure proper communication and planning, please continue to work with Jane and I rather than reaching out to other program alumni. We will coordinate with [the other alumni] internally.” It might seem like I was possessive of this tour, but I requested this because sending all of the separate requests was creating extra work for me and resulting in miscommunication before the event was even approved. We invited the other alumni he reached out to to participate in a panel discussion, which they were happy to do. This mentor has been difficult and passive aggressive in the past when other people have turned down his requests to volunteer, which is why I immediately assumed the worst when he reached out on Facebook.

There were a few comments on the original letter asking if I am POC. I am not, but I am a woman in engineering and most of the programs and events I’m asked to support are for women and underrepresented groups in engineering. I am passionate about increasing diversity in STEM, and all of these programs are in support of that mission. I do feel guilty when I can’t support everything I’m asked to, but I’ve previously overextended myself to the point that it impacted my health. Also, while I want to be a good role model for STEM students, I feel the best way that I can do that is to be a high performer at work and become a more visible woman in engineering, and volunteer when I can commit my whole self to it rather than every time I’m asked to be present.

Thank you for your advice and suggestions!

{ 19 comments… read them below }

  1. MassMatt

    Congratulations on your career, it is great that you are paying it forward! But yes, it seems as though your mentors are either taking advantage, or more likely, they have no idea what working is like. They are asking too much from you, and the “mentor” that starts email blasting all over the company when he doesn’t hear back from you seems especially clueless. A Classic case of someone used to dealing with students and children treating everyone like students or children.

    Don’t be afraid to set boundaries, or be clear about what you can or can’t do, or want to do. Remember, they want something you have got! It’s great to want to help people, and network, but don’t be afraid to say no.

    1. Jennifer85

      Not getting a response for *one day* and deciding this is a negative answer and you need to chase up another way is a ridiculous way to treat anyone, including students and children :p

    2. Delta Delta

      That’s sort of how this struck me, too. My first thought was that these are university professors who are a step or two removed from work that isn’t university work. that can be pretty different from work work.

    3. Anon Anon Anon

      I agree, but the university might be more to blame. I would look at this as an educational institution trying to further it’s goals, both financially and reputation-wise. The mentors represent the university. They aren’t acting alone. This might be coming from their employer.

      As such, I think this gives the OP more angles to pursue, and also makes it less personal. When pushing back, write something that the mentor could take back to someone higher up at the university as evidence that this approach isn’t working. It would also be worthwhile to consider contacting someone else at the university about it, addressing it as a general practice and not implying that the mentors are to blame. Look into the general structure there. Is there anyone who could receive feedback about this? And, as a backup plan, would it be possible to reach out to other alums?

      OP has paid their tuition (regardless of the funding source, the university received money or chose to fund a scholarship at the time of admission). While giving back to your school is nice, it should not be an obligation, and I think these people are crossing a line.

  2. Cassandra

    OP, as a sorta-STEMmer (very, very applied, STEM-adjacent) in academe with a schtick it’s fairly easy both to demo in place and take on the road, I’m familiar with the demands you’re looking at.

    There’s been some study the last few years of inclusion activity as a tax that underrepresented populations in STEM end up paying far more often. (One fairly fluffy example linked to my handle.) What you do about it is your call, but let me suggest (as did MassMatt above) that you have done your share and more already, and it’d be fine for you to let another colleague take the lead. Let me also suggest that “not putting up with garbage” is also a perfectly reasonable boundary for you to set — and Other Mentor is definitely raining garbage down on you.

    I’m not saying you have to stop working toward inclusion! I’m saying maybe don’t pay excess tax, you know? There’s lots of ways to work this problem.

    1. Psyche

      I agree with this. Being asked for something that isn’t possible is not necessarily a problem. Not graciously accepting “I can’t do that” as an answer is a problem. I would reevaluate whether I wanted to continue working with Other Mentor and in what capacity. There are other ways to support women and underrepresented minorities in STEM that do not involve having to put up with passive aggressive comments and actions. Standing up for yourself as a woman in STEM can be hard but it is important and that is the behavior you want to model for these students.

    2. selena81

      I remember when our university send an email to *everyone* to announce that they had hired the first female head of the math-department.
      Never have i cringed so hard on someone’s behalf

      Some women or POC or handicapped love being spokespeople and it’s great if their employer facilitates that.
      But i am pretty sure the vast majority (including me: handicapped female developer) just wants to get on with their job, without much fuzz.

      I think the whole concept of ‘lets show a girl behind a computer to inspire other girls to do the same’ is fundamentally flawed and kinda insulting and maybe even hurtful to the cause.
      My life is my life, and not a series of ‘when Bill Gates was my age he already…’ and ‘if Trump needed more money he just..’ and ‘when the Dalai Lama feels depressed he..’
      There is nothing wrong with people giving thoughtful advice, but i have no need for instagram-perfect heroes to inspire me and also imply i kinda suck at this whole career-thing.

      Sorry. long rant.
      @OP: be a visible trailblazer if you want, or lock yourself up with pizza and clubmate, it’s all fine because that’s what the right to make your own choices is all about.

  3. tab

    Take it from an old woman in engineering,”I feel the best way that I can do that is to be a high performer at work and become a more visible woman in engineering, and volunteer when I can commit my whole self to it rather than every time I’m asked to be present.” is EXACTLY right! I wish you a long and successful career.

  4. SigneL

    I have volunteered for several non-profits. It’s great to be helpful, but I found it helpful to set limits (usually at the beginning) – which I think you did very well. Otherwise people tend to see you as an unlimited fount of information/time/energy that they can use.

  5. Holly

    Thanks for the update OP! I’m really happy you’ve decided to concentrate on your own success – what you’re talking about reminded me of a report in the Columbia Journalism Review “Diversity as a Second Job” (linked in my name field if you’re interested). It’s about a different field (journalism) but still relevant, I think!

  6. Antilles

    The second ‘mentor’ is completely off-base. His idea of hands-on stuff is pretty good…but it’s incredible (albeit unsurprising) that he doesn’t recognize that it’s not necessarily feasible for all jobs. Especially if a lot of your work is classified – over time, you’ll build up enough examples and stories that you can tell to be able to give an interesting presentation to laypeople, but it often takes time to build up enough. If you’ve tried to show a generic version of your job before and it didn’t work out, it’s perfectly understandable for you to politely decline.
    Also, the idea of emailing you when you didn’t respond within a day is ridiculous. In my experience, it’s not uncommon to not hear back immediately even on stuff which directly affects business (proposals, contracts, etc); the expectation that you’d drop everything and respond immediately to a volunteer opportunity is pretty wild. Unless his email specifically indicated a timeframe of “please get back to me today so I can make other arrangements if needed” or some other time-crunch, it’s just not a reasonable expectation.

  7. Observer

    OP, I think you are handling the situation as well as you can. One thing to keep in mind – you can learn from negative examples just as much as from positive examples. eg Mentor #1 seems to have modeled how to handle a professional no with grace. On the other hand, #2 has given you a perfect example of what NOT to do – and why. You see the answer to “What’s the worst that could happen” when people act in this way, and you now know that when you are in that kind of position, you could easily wind up burning bridges. And while your mentor may not think that it’s a big deal because of your relative positions, you also know that it’s really not true. If nothing else, if he makes too much trouble with this event that you ARE involved in, he might lose you – and all of the other people he’s making crazy, and thus the event.

  8. The Man, Becky Lynch

    I’m glad you’re able to see that some people just ask for way too much and are unable to accept “no” gracefully.

    You take care of yourself and build your career first and foremost. Then if you feel like it, you “give back” and help others achieve when possible. As a woman in a other male dominated industry, you don’t owe others a darn thing and many people are out of touch with the reality of your job when they’re not engrossed within the profession.

  9. animaniactoo

    OP, my company has a standard of “everyone must be responded to within 24 hours even if it’s just to acknowledge you received the e-mail and are working on it” – and I would say that something like that would be useful for you here in terms of managing expectations….

    Except that Mentor #2 went overboard. Practically nuclear.

    When he doesn’t get an answer from you on an e-mail, he automatically tries another route? IF – and I really mean IF you want to continue working with him (because it’s quite fine to decide at this point that you’ve done your repayment and need to move on from him*), that you ask him going forward to follow up with you again via e-mail if he was expecting an answer from you sooner before reaching out via other methods.

    It’s great that your co-workers/fellow alumni thought first to come to you, one thing you might ask them to do – instead of you “owning” the project and reaching out to him to ask him to work with you directly, is to have them e-mail him back to say “Hi, please contact OP for this. She’s the lead on this initiative. Thanks!” or even to forward you his e-mail with a cc back to him “Hi, Prof X reached out, forwarding to you as I know you’re in charge of this.” That stops it from being something that *you* have to tell him and manage, and just a thing where he gets blockaded when he tries to go another route at the first sign of concern for him. Normally, blockading something isn’t something that should happen – but it’s a good method of managing somebody who jumps early and tries to do an endrun around you to get what they want.

    Congrats on Mentor #1 – that sounds like a great relationship to keep and glad that he was so sensible about your reply to him.

    *Among other things, given what you’ve described about the demo work, his expectations are unrealistic and not just in one area. And his response to being told no sucks. Miffed? Really? Not disappointed, but miffed? That is not a mature and/or reasonable reaction and you should take that into account as a serious factor while choosing to keep working with him or not.

  10. Prof. Kat

    I just wanted to express solidarity as a fellow woman in STEM! What’s super frustrating to me is that most of the overt bigotry and sexism in my field has largely faded, but what has remained is (a) “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” and (b) the implied demand that members of underrepresented groups (in my field, that’s women, POC, and queer folks) solve the diversity issue. In my case, it’s especially acute, as I’m in academia, and service is explicitly required in my job description. I get asked to serve on every damn committee, because they need a woman, and I get asked to do every damn outreach program, because I’m a role model. I love outreach, I really do! But there are limits to what I can reasonably do. It’s a never ending battle. Good luck!

    1. selena81

      In fairness, i think your point b has arisen because there is not single ‘how to treat minorities’ guideline (stupid example: if you dye some labcoats pink some girls will think it’s awesome and others will think it is demeaning).
      Which has led to thinking of ‘uhhh, can you please sort this out between yourselves first’

      As to your point a: i am more concerned about too high expectations. The female programmer who has hacked into the computer-mainframe-technobabble while the guy is still powering up his laptop.
      (of course low expectations are not good either, but it is my impression that this was mostly resolved when the overt sexism went out the window)

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