taking care of business

Can’t Find a Mentor? Look to Your Peers

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During the first few years of my career, I had a fantasy. It involved meeting a woman, probably about 15 years older than I was, who wanted to mentor me. We’d have long lunches, during which she’d impart industry wisdom. I’d tell her about my struggles with a boss or a decision to apply for a new role; she’d offer real-talk advice. She’d gently suggest that I go for the promotion that scared me. In the dreamiest version of this dream, she’d actually help me secure that promotion.

Ten years later, this remains the stuff of fantasy: I made it up the ladder from intern to boss, and my dream older-woman mentor never materialized. In many industries, the ranks of women start to thin out as they have children and hit the glass ceiling, and so there simply aren’t enough women at the top to mentor those coming up behind them. Sure, older men can fill this gap. But when I look back at the people who have most shaped my career — those I’ve turned to in moments of crisis or at major decision points — most of them are my peers. I’ve never lacked for mentors. It’s just that they’ve always been women close to my own age.

The research says I’m not alone. Women are already pretty good at networking horizontally, among our peers, and finding people to offer us advice. But we struggle to find sponsors — people who are higher up in our organization who can advocate for us behind closed doors and pull us up through the ranks. Women are 54 percent less likely than men to have a sponsor. The experts say we should all be keeping an eye out for a sponsor, and even asking for one directly. But in the meantime, we have to work with what we have. And what we definitely have is our peers.

Any entry-level worker knows that it’s hard to squeeze yourself onto the calendar of someone at the top. It’s much easier to forge alliances among people who are at your level. And while most of us do this in the absence of other options, I’ve found that turning to my peers has led to many of the professional payoffs I’d hoped to get from an older mentor. If I could go back in time, I’d tell my younger self: Stop waiting for a magical, accomplished older woman to take you under her Eileen Fisher–clad wing. Start looking to the people on your level. Here’s how.

Get vulnerable. In the earliest days of my career, whenever I was around older co-workers, I was worried about projecting an air of “I got this.” But it’s hard to seek help in solving your problems when you’re pretending you don’t have any. It’s only when you can be real about your insecurities and shortcomings that you’ll get good advice on how to overcome them. I think I’ve gotten such good advice from women my own age because I’ve let myself be more vulnerable with them. I could admit when I didn’t feel confident enough to speak up and ask for more money, even though I knew I should. I could confess that I was unsure I was even on the right career path. We’re going through many of the same things at the same time, so we can talk through them together.

Recognize that some problems are generation-specific. Sometimes it’s your peers who can best understand certain pressures you’re under. People who grew up online tend to experience the digital world quite differently than those who adopted it as established adults. A lot of modern work dilemmas aren’t related to your actual job description, but how to present yourself professionally — especially online. And while great advice can come from people of all ages, sometimes you need a gut-check from someone who has experienced the world the way you have. As I try to figure out whether something is too personal to post on a public account, or which platforms I should be using more professionally than socially, I turn to my peers to help me muddle through.

Amplify each other. In meetings and on email chains, repeat what your peers say and make sure they get credit for their ideas. Even if you don’t work together, you can help them amplify themselves. If you see them not posting about a new job or achievement, give them the push they need to brag a little. It’s a total lie that if you keep your head down and just do your work, higher-ups will recognize and reward you. You need to make noise about it. Peers can help.

Find your peers in other fields. Some of the best work advice I’ve ever gotten has come from friends who are familiar with my industry but work outside of it. They’re not gunning for the exact same jobs I am. They’ve usually had different experiences and can therefore offer a fresh perspective. I learned about setting my writing rates from my friend Sarah, a special-effects animator who also works on a contract basis. I learned to listen to myself and take time off when things got too stressful from my friend Leigh, a yoga instructor. I learned to set boundaries and deadlines and deliverables from my friend Amina, who works in tech. Plus, crossing industry lines helps to keep jealousy at bay: You’re not comparing yourself quite so directly.

Recommend each other. Even at some of my earliest jobs, I was hired by someone close to my own age. Often there was an older boss signing off, but the initial contact and interview were with a peer. I took my biggest step up ever — an executive editor role — because a friend my own age recommended me for the position. And when I took a huge career leap and decided to freelance after I was laid-off from that big-step-up executive job, most of the early assignments I got were from friends I’d known a long time.

Play a long game. It’s true that, unlike sponsorship, peer mentoring rarely leads to a big leap in salary or title in a short time — it’s about mutual investment in the long term. The benefits of peer mentoring may seem small at first, but over the years I’ve realized that most of my opportunities have come from people roughly my age or slightly older. Those people become the bosses as time passes. Or they’ve come as a result of side projects I’ve worked on with my peers, which I’d argue is one of the best ways to mentor each other. With a little shine theory, the opportunities for all of us started to multiply as we rose through our careers together.

I might be reaping the peak benefits of peer mentorship right now, in my early 30s — a time when the women I turn to for advice are only just starting to have kids and deal with the pressure that puts on their careers. But I’m hopeful that maybe, together, we can figure out a way through some of the problems that have plagued generations of professional women before us. Maybe we can keep those mentoring relationships strong, even as some of us change our schedules and career tracks and priorities.

Even though I can see how much of my career I owe to my peers, I haven’t stopped looking for that dream older-lady mentor. She might still be out there. But a more likely story is that I’m simply aging into that role myself. I can’t wait until I’m part of an old girls’ club and can become the older-lady sponsor I looked for and never found.

Can’t Find a Mentor? Look to Your Peers