How Mentoring Supports Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at AIR

Two women colleagues laughing together outdoors

Mentoring is an important part of AIR’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, both within and beyond our institution. Mentoring helps nurture and develop a diverse workforce, which adds value to our mission-driven work. Mentoring can help people navigate structural challenges within career development and organizations that are often barriers to success. Mentoring also can contribute to honing the skills of people involved in mentoring relationships.

In this Q&A, AIR’s Karen Francis, vice president and chief diversity, equity, inclusion officer, and Kimberly DuMont, vice president and managing director of the AIR Equity Initiative, discuss our mentoring programs and highlight how they each support diversity, equity, and inclusion at AIR.

Q. Why is mentoring important for advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion within AIR?

Francis: AIR’s diversity, equity, and inclusion strategy is critical to accomplishing our mission of generating and using rigorous evidence that contributes to a better, more equitable world. When we bring diverse voices, diverse perspectives, and the richness of diverse lived experiences to our work and draw upon them to guide how we do our work, we can be far more effective and impactful. This helps us fulfill our mission—meeting the needs of diverse clients and communities that we serve. We see mentoring as an important investment for our staff and their professional development.

Q. How does AIR address the need for mentoring internally?

Francis: Mentoring within AIR reflects our mission-driven diversity, equity, and inclusion strategy. Like many organizations, AIR recognized the need to diversify the leadership pipeline. Staff, particularly those from underrepresented groups, told us that there was a direct need for visibility and access to senior leaders. AIR then developed a 12-month Reciprocal Mentoring Program to enhance opportunities for early- to mid-career staff from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups to engage with senior leadership for career growth, professional development, learning, and understanding.

I think there’s a big difference in it being reciprocal. The mentor I’m working with is embracing that idea and concept. She’s very conscientious that it’s a give-and-take, sharing, not her being a mentor or advisor. … It’s different than the mentor/mentee relationship that I was expecting.

—Staff participant, Reciprocal Mentoring Program, 3-month interview

The reciprocal mentoring program is structured, intentional, and deliberate in its focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. There’s a formal orientation to introduce everyone to the program objectives, goals, and expectations, along with resources and prompts for conversations and reflection. Most participants meet monthly.

Reciprocal mentoring is not a mentor/mentee engagement. It’s a partner engagement, matching staff with senior leaders so that they learn from one another about their life and work experiences and explore dimensions of diversity. Reciprocal mentoring builds relationships, knowledge, and skills in both directions. Senior leaders learn about the talents and interests of their mentoring partners and practice inclusive leadership skills. For staff, conversations with senior leaders and job shadowing are opportunities to learn about project work. We want this to lead to sponsorship, which means that senior leaders say to their mentoring partners, “I support you. I believe in you. I’m going to teach you and create opportunities for you. I am going to stand and advocate for you.”

AIR also has an internal mentoring program for early-career staff to learn from more senior staff in a group setting, with topics ranging from career advancement strategies to unconscious bias.

The Pipeline Partnership Program and P3 ENGAGE

AIR’s Pipeline Partnership Program (P3) is a collaboration with Georgia State University, Howard University, and the University of Texas at San Antonio that aims to build a more diverse group of researchers and practitioners in the behavioral and social sciences fields. The $100+ million AIR Equity Initiative funds the Pipeline Partnership Program and its P3 ENGAGE mentoring program for graduate students.

Q. How does AIR support mentoring externally?

DuMont: During the 2021-22 academic year, graduate students pursuing doctoral degrees at three universities are engaged in a research-based mentoring program that pairs them with preeminent scholars at AIR and leading higher education institutions: P3 ENGAGE. Developed by AIR, this one-year program supports students at a pivotal time, when they are immersed in their dissertations and exploring career interests.

Q. How is mentoring for graduate students in the Pipeline Partnership Program intended to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion?

DuMont: Along the same lines, we are trying to address some of the disparities in career advancement and grant funding in the behavioral and social sciences—and in who pursues and participates in work at research and technical assistance institutions like AIR.

During the initial year of this effort, we expected to match about nine students from our three partner universities with a set of mentors. Eighteen students prepared applications and described their interests in exploring choices around career, advancing their work, and being better connected. This level of student interest is an important part of the story. AIR responded by matching all 18 students with mentors.

Beginning with the program orientation, mentors and mentees started forging relationships, setting parameters and expectations for how they will interact, and sharing their life and educational journeys and research interests.

I was hesitant in my new role as a senior leader, but now I have become a lot more comfortable as the mentorship continued. I have learned a lot about myself. Especially in the language I use while writing emails and how I go about things. I have become aware of my unconscious bias.

—Senior leader participant, Reciprocal Mentoring Program, 6-month interview

Our hope is that this becomes a significant relationship for both the mentees and mentors. On the mentee side, mentoring is a developmental process. It provides an opportunity to get a deep understanding of systems that students need to access and how to navigate a landscape that often is intentionally or unintentionally exclusionary. For example, winning grants is critical to career advancement. One advantage for winning a grant is to resubmit proposals, because most proposals are declined on the first attempt—but we know from the literature that resubmission and award rates vary across racial groups. Becoming a proposal reviewer for grant funding helps you learn the criteria in that world. When students partner with people who have a lot of experience navigating grant funding mechanisms or political aspects of applying for a grant, or who have different career experiences, that has great value for understanding norms that are not transparent and for creating connections to new networks.

Mentors have lived experiences that they bring to the relationship. They also have an opportunity to learn about the challenges graduate students are encountering and what their experiences are like. It is especially important for AIR leaders to be aware of that experience and then to help develop strategies for the mentors to be better counselors or developmental guiders in the process. Formalizing a program like this allows us to offer support to the mentors as well, to build their muscles around cultural and linguistic competencies as they engage with mentees. Mentors aren’t necessarily trained to do that. This provides a setting for that to happen.

We also work from the assumption that graduate students may not be aware of AIR and the roles here. The Pipeline Partnership Program is very intentional about entering a relationship with universities and students to allow them to explore and ask questions with their mentors and during learning events. This helps to increase diversity at AIR.

Francis: Institutions like AIR are well-kept secrets, so graduate students don’t necessarily see us as viable career opportunities. But we need students and researchers who have been trained to do deep research and technical assistance. We’ve also leveraged our Summer Intern and Scholar Program to build a pipeline of diverse and skilled talent.

Q. What have you learned from internal mentoring programs?

Francis: Because we are researchers, we planned both a process and an outcomes evaluation of the first cohort of reciprocal mentoring at AIR.

I am enjoying getting to know my mentor better. I think it’s a good investment of the company to focus on what we can do at AIR to support diversity and inclusion.

—Staff participant, Reciprocal Mentoring Program, 3-month interview

During the program, we conducted large-group check-ins and one-on-one interviews with senior leaders and staff after three, six, nine, and 12 months to monitor participants’ experiences, and then six months after the end of the formal program. The real-time feedback was important, so that we could understand the experiences of the mentoring partners, both on an individual level and as a group, and make mid-course corrections as needed. For example, we learned that we had to provide additional supports for both senior leaders and staff as they initially engaged in the mentoring relationship. This is when they were adjusting to the process of reciprocity and navigating power dynamics to equally share knowledge and hold one another accountable as they discussed differences based on dimensions of diversity and race and the impacts on professional development.

Initially, participants relied on the program resources and prompts to focus their discussions. As their relationships progressed, their conversations flowed more organically. We gave them space for that getting-to-know-you phase. They liked that the program was flexible enough for them to shape their own interactions.

Based on the final evaluation, we know that staff really enjoyed the program—and many relationships continued beyond the 12-month formal program. Most participants agreed that the program had allowed them to:

  • Engage in mutually engaging relationships to support professional growth—not only with their partners, but with other participants;
  • Share their personal and professional experiences; and
  • Develop a relationship with a partner who had a different background, perspective, or experience.

We’re using the evaluation findings to plan a second, expanded cohort of reciprocal mentoring at AIR for 2022.

Q. How is P3 ENGAGE using lessons learned from AIR’s internal mentoring programs?

DuMont: The trust component of the relationship that Karen describes is so important. In reciprocal mentoring, participants have to trust AIR as an institution as well as their relationship.

Trust also must be cultivated in the P3 ENGAGE effort. Graduate student mentees also have questions about navigating power dynamics in their professional relationships: Do I refer to my mentor by title or can we go by first names? What kind of conversations can we have? What’s acceptable within a mentoring relationship—and what’s outside its bounds? How do I manage that? Mentoring pairs are developing contracts to help build the foundation for their relationship.

Similar to the Reciprocal Mentoring Program, we know that mentors can assist with navigating relationships in professional settings. These new social ties provide additional resources, information, and support. Both mentoring programs provide several guideposts: careful planning, resources, and orientation; real-time feedback that informs behind-the-scenes course corrections; and an evaluation plan. The P3 ENGAGE evaluation is modeled on the reciprocal mentoring evaluation.


More on What Program Participants Think About Reciprocal Mentoring

“There are things I can contribute to leadership. And they’re learning, too … even though they have lots of knowledge, they don’t have your knowledge. … It has taken away some of that intimidation of upper leadership; being able to break down some of that mystery is good. Being able to relate to them as a person and see where you have common ground, it helps break down that tension when you talk to other senior leaders.”

—Staff participant, 3-month interview

“Overall, I would say it's a very helpful and pleasant experience. I’m very grateful for being part of the program and also getting to meet with my mentor or partner on a regular basis. We’ve been meeting every month, and every conversation has been so helpful, so inspiring. … I look forward to continuing the mentorship with my partner.”

—Staff participant, 6-month interview

“My mentor talked about a website she was building. She asked me to take a look at it for feedback as a teacher. I am helping her with her work. I have some questions with my work and need guidance from a senior person, and I really need that perspective.”

—Staff participant, 9-month interview

“It’s been beneficial just to know people are in a different place. To hear their own goals of where they’d like to grow and open up some opportunities for where they’d like to shadow.”

—Senior leader participant, 9-month interview

Image of Karen Francis
Vice President and Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer