Composition Matters: Multi-Context Informal Mentoring Networks for Low-Income Urban Adolescent Girls Pursuing Healthcare Careers

An article by Packard, B.W., Kim, G.J., Sicley, M., and Piontkowski, S., in Mentoring and Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 17:2, pp 187-200

Packard et al investigate the way in which mentoring networks influence teenage girls in choosing healthcare as a potential career. The authors find that girls who are from disadvantaged backgrounds benefit greatly from a variety of different informal mentors to influence their career aspirations and compensate for a lack of social capital, whilst acknowledging that familial relationships are the most important influence on these girls.

The research reported here examines how the composition of mentoring networks can affect the ways that mentoring helps adolescent girls from low-income urban families overcome barriers to education and employment. It builds upon recent studies showing that support from multiple mentors in different contexts increases mentees’ access to social capital that can help them articulate and reach their goals, in contrast to earlier approaches that emphasized one-on-one mentoring relationships. It focuses on girls aspiring to careers in healthcare, which has a healthy supply of jobs and in which positive health outcomes are associated with professionals being demographically representative of their patients, thus support for ethnically diverse, low-income girls in this career may have a significant impact on their future outcomes.

The survey, undertaken in the USA, sets out to examine the ‘constellations’ of mentoring networks that girls access in pursuing their desired careers. It surveys an ethnically diverse sample of sixty girls aged 16-18, none of whose parents had obtained a bachelor’s degree. Two-thirds were eligible for free or reduced-lunch programmes. Participants were asked to describe all persons helping them with educational and career plans which were categorized into context (home/school/community), function (instrumental/socio-emotional) and type of instrumental function (academic/ college/ career). These categories were analysed to identify correlations between the number of mentoring sources, context, function and type.

The authors found that nearly one-third of participants drew mentoring functions from multiple contexts, 25% of whom listed home and school as their ‘constellation’. 62% had mentoring from more than one individual. 47% reported that they had both socio-emotional and instrumental functions of mentoring. As expected, individuals having more mentoring sources also tended to have mentoring sources from different contexts, and received both socio-emotional and instrumental functions of mentoring. For example, 17% of participants with a single mentor received both functions, compared to 56% of those with two mentoring sources, 71% of those with three and 79% of those with four or more. In addition, when individuals drew mentoring functions from multiple contexts, they were more likely to receive different types of instrumental mentoring (academic and career, for example).

The majority (65%) of mentoring was derived from the home. The authors note that nine participants had a parent working in healthcare, and 60% had an extended family member in that field. These family members gave field-related instrumental mentoring, such as healthcare careers advice or workplace visiting opportunities. In contrast, girls whose families were not working in healthcare received instrumental mentoring of a different nature, such as transportation to facilitate career research or encouragement to complete academic assignments, showing that the context and function of mentoring are related in locally-specific but significant ways.

These findings suggest that diversely composed networks mentors can help bolster the resources of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Cross-context, multiple-sourced mentoring can, in this way, increase the access to the social capital young girls need in achieving long-term educational and career success. Different individuals can provide different skills and resources that contribute to both personal development and practical reaching of goals. A key observation is the importance of family in providing different functions of support, and programmers should thus try to engage the whole family to secure greater chances of success in mentoring, by recognizing the role of family members and others and showing them further ways to link young people to career opportunities.

There are some limitations in the method: while a demographically-representative sample, participants were drawn from a career outreach programme and had thus already made productive steps in pursuing a healthcare career. It examines their views at one moment in time only, a year before applying to college when decisions may alter. Most girls were applying for female-dominated roles for which it may have been easier to access support. Further channels of research are suggested, such as how adolescents not engaged in outreach programmes construct mentoring networks, and to address the particular challenges for young people wishing to enter non-stereotypical careers.

Composition Matters: Multi-Context Informal Mentoring Networks for Low-Income Urban Adolescent Girls Pursuing Healthcare Careers – full report