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What does culture have to do with mentoring?

Anyone who has engaged in a positive and productive mentoring relationship will likely attest to the value of having a mentor. Having access to a quality mentor is often of critical importance to successful personal and professional development. The entrepreneurial women SHE works with either own or are starting up micro-enterprises; the value of advice, guidance and support from a ‘wise and trusted’ mentor should not be overlooked.

However, the creation of successful mentoring relationships depends on many factors that are often neglected. In particular, mentoring must be relevant to be effective. Given that the definition of mentoring varies between different cultures, one important, and often overlooked component of mentoring is cultural relevance. How mentoring is culturally understood will determine the very essence of a mentoring relationship. Mentors may be understood as teachers, as supervisors, as role models, as peers or as experts. The word mentoring may not translate or it may hold negative connotations related to power imbalances with the mentoring relationship. What is crucial to understand is that the concept of mentoring is not static, but rather is multidimensional – and implementing a culturally irrelevant mentoring program is unlikely to be much use to any of the parties involved.

Him Sopheak, co-founder/owner of Warm Family and SHE Mentor

Him Sopheak, co-founder/owner of Warm Family and SHE Mentor

Mentoring is a crucial component of the SHE Incubator Program. The opportunity for our entrepreneurs to have access to an inspiring business leader who can provide advice on how the participants can achieve their goals, build their confidence and overcome their challenges is a critical part of the Program. However, the success of the mentoring component of the Incubator Program rests largely on building a mentoring relationship with the cultural and social reality of our participants in mind. There are several components to this:

1. Societal Norms

The participants in the Incubator Program face a specific set of challenges and barriers as women in Cambodia attempting to create and lead successful businesses. Socially embedded gender roles, gendered pay disparity, familial obligations, a lack of female representation in the higher levels of business and politics, access to education and male-centric business practices are but a few of these challenges. For mentors to be able to connect with the women and offer them relevant advice and guidance, they must be able to understand these conditions. For example, Khmer women face a social expectation to be delicate, quiet and deferential to men. If the mentor does not understand this, they may suggest the women assert themselves to gain the respect of their male counterparts, which may ultimately be counter-productive.

2. Hierarchy

Furthermore, Cambodia has a very specific social hierarchy that continues to shape how individuals interact with one another. This hierarchy is based on unequal relations, where the junior partner owes the senior partner respect and obedience. These unequal relationships permeate Cambodian society; subordinates rely on superiors to be told what to do, inequalities between people are both expected and desired. These inequalities are based on many factors including the seniority of a position in a workplace, organisation or family, or even just a person’s age. Sadly, the misplaced perception of seniority based entirely on someone being a foreigner persists. An understanding of this hierarchy is crucial to forming effective mentoring relationships; if the perceived power imbalance between the mentor and the mentee is too great, the mentee is unlikely to be comfortable asking the mentor questions or sharing their struggles.

3. Saving Face

Like in many Asian cultures, saving face and losing face are very important to the Cambodian way of life. Most Cambodians are not prepared to lose face and feel it is very serious when it does happen. It is said that losing face makes Cambodians feel unsafe, frustrated, afraid and angry and can lead to conflict[1]. If the subordinate in a relationship loses face, they often fear to express themselves or talk freely in public. They are likely to become more passive and decrease their contribution to the activity at hand, which may be the mentoring relationship. Indeed, if a mentee loses face, the mentoring relationship will likely be compromised as communication channels and trust will be lost. This is interesting when considering the World Bank’s ‘Mentee Toolkit’, which suggests that mentees initiate meetings and questions and also encourages mentees to correct misunderstandings when they arise. Both of these may be things that Cambodian’s are uncomfortable doing, particularly when the power imbalance dictated by societal hierarchy is present.

SHE's 2016 Incubator Participants engaged in the mentoring process - which they described as 'inspirational'.

SHE's 2016 Incubator Participants engaged in the mentoring process - which they described as 'inspirational'.

When you consider these particular components that are unique to the Cambodian experience, it is clear that a one-size-fits-all approach to mentoring will not only be unproductive, it may also be harmful. However, armed with this understanding, it also possible to cultivate a very successful mentoring program that is relevant and grounded in cultural realities, which can offer benefits to both the mentors and the mentees. SHE’s mentors are also chosen with these factors in mind. The SHE Incubator offers peer-group mentoring, rather then partnering participants one-on-one with mentors who they may find too intimidating to approach with questions or problems. Within the group setting, the participants can take comfort in asking questions on behalf of the group instead of themselves. Individual mentoring is also available on request – when the women are comfortable enough to seek it out.

Furthermore, our mentors are chosen in line with the needs of our participants. Take our latest mentor as an example; Him Sopheak, the co-founder and owner of Warm Family online shop. Sopheak is a Khmer woman who has been confronted with many of the same challenges our participants have faced; she understands the culture, she speaks the language and she knows how to create successful relationships despite hierarchical barriers. The Incubator Participants described her as welcoming and willing to share all of her story and reported being inspired by her journey, rather than intimidated by her success.

None of this is to say that cross-cultural mentoring cannot also be successful and rewarding. However, what is really important is a commitment to understanding the prevailing social and cultural conditions within which the mentoring will take place. Given the prevalence of foreign run organisations in places like Cambodia, this implication is important; it is culturally appropriate behaviour and understanding that will facilitate meaningful mentoring relationships. It is important to remember that successful people never reach their goals alone - creating approaches to mentoring that take culture into account will allow more productive and empowering partnerships. 

- Written by Prue Allen, WhyDev Fellow with SHE Investments

The 2016 Incubator group with a mentor during a field trip

The 2016 Incubator group with a mentor during a field trip