Mentoring, Femtoring, and Beyond

Published February 9, 2021

As someone who likes to explore novel ideas or find innovative ways to spark conversation within the sport sector, I am offering up this blog to describe the importance of intentionality. I believe this to be so true in many realms, but even more so when it comes to language. As our words shape our worlds, being choiceful about our language opens up or closes down conversation.

Please accept this as an invitation to an open conversation.

I’ve been struggling to name the support I offer others. When younger people come to me for advice, a listening ear, or to explore something that is keeping them stuck, they thank me for being their mentor.

I’ve played this role more formally for over a decade now … intentionally supporting younger people as they look to hone their craft. But over the last year the word ‘mentor’ hasn’t felt fully illustrative of how I feel when I am sitting alongside another person, nor does it reflect the mutuality of what arises between us.

It’s helpful to understand the root word of any one thing so that we can arrive at a shared understanding. The word mentor means wise adviser or sage counselor.  I like to think it was also inspired by Odysseus’s friend Mentor who was admired and appreciated for his advisory role.  The root word of ‘men’ means to ‘think’ in Latin and ‘mentoring’ means ‘to serve as a mentor’. The concept of mentoring has many different interpretations. For youth, it can be seen as a preventative strategy to support their development as they move into adulthood. In the context of the workplace, it is a way of supporting and encouraging people to manage their own learning in order to maximize potential, develop skills and improve performance, supported by a trusted advisor.  There are phases to mentorship that include preparation for both the mentor and the mentee, negotiating the work ahead, enabling growth through connections, and closure. This way of supporting each other is widely written about in the literature and has been a hallmark for leaders to give back, creating a shared legacy of learning and support. I myself have been mentored and have appreciated the care and support offered to me by men and women during my career. We seek mentors who have knowledge and experience to impart and the relationship that develops is based on a transactional exchange of knowledge to support mutual growth and shared learning.

In what ways might ‘femtorship’ be different?

I needed to dig a bit deeper and truth be shared, I did not do an in-depth analysis nor a literature review to answer this question. I offer that it’s likely more helpful to see it as a socially constructed word that over time might flow more easily off our tongue like ‘chairwoman’. Fem means ‘woman’ in Latin and the concept of femtoring as far as I can find has its origins in feminist theory and is emerging as a model of diversity mentoring for young women. The central idea is to introduce gender competencies and the feminist perspective, in different spheres to provide a more holistic response to the inequities faced by young women. In addition, it is meant to create social capital in the face of inequitable treatment through instrumental, emotional, informational, and sometimes financial support. What I appreciate most is the opportunity to use different language to signal a different approach to supporting others.

I have concluded that I am drawn to the more holistic approach and one that has me connect to my role on a continuum. Rather than situate myself as a sage adviser, I realize that I have been doing both … femtoring and mentoring dozens of girls and boys and young people throughout my career. From my days as a community soccer coach to my commitment to support a minimum of one woman per year pro bono, I do see a distinction between mentoring and femtoring.

In hindsight, I feel I often blended styles depending on the situation and the person I was working with. In addition, there is a different energy at play that I consciously tap into when I support others. Are they masculine in their approach or more feminine? A non-binary gender lens really intrigues me and is beyond the focal point of this blog, however the way that we have learned to incorporate this as Integral Coaches means we pay particular attention to the energetic flow and characteristics of the people we are partnering with. What is their dominant orientation? In what ways does the masculine and feminine energy flow through them and inform their thoughts, behaviours, and motivations? The literature speaks to the feminine voice as being more communal, process-focused, relational, and more personal while the masculine voice is more abstracting, objective, product-oriented and independent. Rather than seeing these ways of orienting as absolute and binary, they are a way of describing how this person speaks, focuses their attention, and shows up in the world. And with more inclusive and less linear models available to us in the 21st Century, I am beyond appreciative of where the literature will go next to describe some of what I am sharing here.

In a recent conversation with world-leading coaches and a retired Olympian, we were gathering to launch an international mentoring program to support young females in their careers. Something shifted when I asked the question – what if we called it a femtoring program? What might be different? What shifts when we call ourselves femtors and the women who partner with us femtees? Does something else emerge when we call this form of human interaction by a different name?

We went to silence for quite a while. And we are still digesting this question.

There’s power in that question.

Beyond mentoring and femtoring, what else might we call this form of human interaction? What name are you inspired to grant this way of being with each other?

It’s too early to tell in the program development whether naming this way of holding the relationship as something different than mentoring will have any impact. Intuitively I put forward that there is something different about what we are conceptualizing and it might look, sound, and feel like this:

  • When I femtor, I look first to nurture the relationship. I tap into my feminine energy (Yin) and I look to nurture and receive other people. I also connect to my masculine energy (Yang) to support the goals of the femtoring alliance.
  • When I femtor, I invite mutual learning and create a shared commitment for both of us to grow.
  • When I femtor, I acknowledge that both of us have wisdom to share and that we will both benefit from our collaboration.
  • When I femtor, I pay attention to the process we are agreeing to and ensure there is awareness of the power between us. We consciously look for ways to acknowledge this power as we navigate our time together.
  • When I femtor, I ask powerful questions and wait for my femtee to arrive at their own conclusion. I recognize that nurturing self-awareness is often more powerful than imparting knowledge.
  • When I femtor, I create the space for emotions to be named and experienced. I invite our intuitive way of knowing to inform what is arising. I make space for something ‘more’ to emerge.
  • When I femtor, I acknowledge the conversational nature of reality and that this experience will shift and shape us. I accept my role with an open heart, knowing and trusting that the experience is a gift for both.

In the end, our words do shape our worlds, and what we can mention we can manage. As someone who is knee-deep in bereavement and human development theories at the moment, I am drawn to inclusive language that feels more authentic and that reflects our deepest intentions. Let me know how this blog lands for you so that we can learn from each other at Let’s keep the conversation going.

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