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March 17, 2005


A vision for mentoring

A gap based on gender and minority status persists at Pitt and at other prominent U.S. universities in terms of various measures of career success: salary, rates of tenure, achievement of leadership positions and career satisfaction. Mentoring programs provide one approach to narrowing this gap. The term “mentoring” is used frequently, especially in academic settings, and we often assume that there is a shared meaning of the term. Recently, a sub-committee of the University Senate ad hoc committee on women at Pitt, on which I serve, has taken up the challenge of defining mentoring in an effort to develop a strong mentoring program here.

Several effective mentoring programs already exist on campus and, as an initial task, our subcommittee is exploring these programs. In addition, with the assistance of Jean Ferketish, assistant chancellor, and Darlene Zellers, Office of Academic Career Development in the School of Medicine, and their students, we are exploring mentoring programs that exist at other AAU institutions. In the process of our work, we have been challenged to consider what we actually mean by mentoring. This column presents our current thoughts in regard to how we define mentoring. As we continue our work, we anticipate revising, expanding and modifying our definition.

We distinguish mentoring from advising, counseling and supervising. Advising is an assigned academic role. Counseling is a problem-centered service. Supervising is a relationship with a power differential because the supervisor evaluates the supervisee.

We view mentoring as a voluntary relationship between two people (the “mentor” and the “mentee”) in which the goal is for the mentor to assist the mentee in achieving success within the institution, which will bring success to the institution as well.

There are several key aspects of mentoring in our evolving definition of this term. Mentoring is a lateral, negotiated, voluntary, ongoing, trusting relationship between mentor and protégé, with the goal of achieving institutional advancement and personal and professional growth within the workplace. Mentors provide advocacy, protection, coaching and sponsorship; they may act as ombudspersons.

Through mentoring, individuals are assisted in exploring diverse paths for advancement and leadership in the organization.

Mentoring consists of dynamic, mutually supportive, mutually beneficial alliances among individuals for the purposes of supporting career development and providing psychosocial support, particularly in terms of balancing one’s career and personal life. Mentoring is a relationship in which the mentee is assisted in carving out her career to encompass her interests and passions as well as to ensure a fit within the institutional context, while allowing for creativity and innovation. Although the emphasis is on assisting the mentee, both mentor and mentee ideally will benefit from developing a new relationship/connection with one another.

Because our subcommittee’s work originated through the ad hoc committee on women at Pitt, our focus has been on women at the University, including faculty, staff and students. However, we also believe that our work should and will apply to men. We are beginning our work by focusing on women, but our long-term goal is to develop an excellent mentoring program for all members of the University community, regardless of age, experience, gender, race, ethnicity or other group membership.

A strong mentoring program will enhance the success of each individual as well as the success of the institution.

Our goal is to build on the mentoring programs that already exist at Pitt, making mentoring something that is systematically and consistently provided for all faculty, staff and students. We believe that a strong mentoring program can be a signature feature in recruiting and retaining faculty, staff and students. We welcome your thoughts on mentoring.

Ellen Olshansky

Ellen Olshansky is chair of the Department of Health and Community Systems, School of Nursing, as well as co-chair of the mentoring subcommittee of the ad hoc Senate committee for the support and advancement of women at Pitt.

Other members of the subcommittee are Sherry Brown, College of General Studies McCarl Center; Heidi Feldman (co-chair), School of Medicine; Consuella Lewis, administrative and policy studies, School of Education; Ann Ostroski, staff member in the Graduate School of Public Health; Maureen Porter, administrative and policy studies, School of Education; Elsa Strotmeyer, epidemiology, Graduate School of Public Health, and Amy Wagner, School of Education. The subcommittee can be reached by contacting Olshansky at

For further information about the Senate ad hoc committee, contact Irene Frieze (, who chairs the committee.

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