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Anderson et al. 2015: Compartmentalizing Feelings
Electronic Journal of Communication
Volume 25 Numbers 3 & 4, 2015

Compartmentalizing Feelings:
Examining the Role of Workplace Emotions in the Mentoring Experiences of Underrepresented Women Faculty

Lindsey B. Anderson
University of Maryland
College Park, MD, USA

Ziyu Long
Colorado State
Fort Collins, CO, USA

Patrice M. Buzzanell
Klod Kokini
Jennifer C. Batra
Robyn F. Wilson

Purdue University
West Lafayette, IN, USA

Abstract: Mentoring is a fundamental organizational process that people enact through communication: one that relies on emotion to maintain the professional relationship. This article explores underrepresented women faculty members’ mentoring relationships and corresponding emotions in a College of Engineering (CoE) at a large Midwestern university. Based on in-depth interviews with female engineering faculty members, the case study demonstrates how emotions underscore women’s mentoring experiences in academe. Their personal stories demonstrate how the development of mentoring relationships is compartmentalized (emotions and containment) and simultaneously built on trust (emotions and integration). Stories also illustrate how these women see the mentoring processes, emotions, and reproduction of traditional mentoring system as facilitating their professional growth. Our findings contribute to better understanding women’s mentoring in academe and the communicative constructions of mentorship, emotions, and resilience. From the women’s narratives of their everyday mentoring experiences, we draw theoretical implications concerning the restriction and expansion of emotional boundaries in professional mentoring relationships and provide pragmatic recommendations for improving academic mentoring practices.

Mentoring is an important organizational process in which more- and less-experienced members communicate information and advice, often marked by emotion (Kalbfleisch, 2000). When mentoring is depicted as knowledge transfer or socialization for career developmental needs, the emotional and relational aspects of the mentoring processes and practices may be neglected. Moreover, communication, when viewed as a conduit or tool for mentoring, tends to belie mentorship’s complex nature as well as its reliance on different communication strategies for relationship development (Kalbfleisch, 2002). To integrate workplace emotions and mentoring from a communicative perspective, we argue that communication facilitates development of mentoring relationships (Sias, 2008) and involves emotions similar to those in other relationships (e.g., happiness, jealousy, boredom, competition, conflict, ambiguity, and frustrations; see Buzzanell & D’Enbeau, 2014; Oglensky, 2008). This study explores how emotions are manifested through the mentoring experiences of women engineering faculty members in a traditionally masculine, perceptually rational, work environment.

Our goals in this article are twofold given the need for empirical work linking communication and workplace emotions in mentoring relationships of female faculty in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) disciplines (Buzzanell, Long, Kokini, Anderson, & Batra, in press; Long, Buzzanell, Anderson, Batra, Kokini, & Wilson, 2014; Zeller, Howard, & Barcic, 2008). First, we describe how greater attention to communication as a constitutive force in academic mentorships provides more nuanced, complex understandings of mentoring processes. In doing so, we privilege the voices and localized knowledge of the mentees and mentors. Second, we examine the embodied nature of mentoring by giving attention to workplace emotions and illuminating the effort that mentees put into their feeling displays to make their behaviors contextually appropriate (see Hochschild, 1983). This examination contributes to the integration of research on emotions and mentoring, and highlights the emotional character of mentoring.

Examining the emotional character of mentoring for underrepresented women engineering faculty is particularly important because of the continuing need to understand everyday practices that produce chilly climates in universities for women and may deter women from entering these fields (Maranto & Griffin, 2011). This chilly environment is due in part to the increasing pressures to publish, secure funding, run research teams, teach, and develop engaged scholarship profiles with diverse constituencies requiring theoretically and empirically driven studies (Buzzanell, Kokini, Long, Anderson, & Batra, 2012; Dohrman, Arendt, Buzzanell, & Litera, 2013; Long et al., 2014). These pressures make mentoring not only an unseen and often unrewarded task but also a potential contributor to lower quality of life for faculty, if the work is externally mandated and unaccompanied by instruction about its emotional aspects (e.g., Guy & Lee, 2013; Kammeyer-Mueller, Simon, & Judge, 2013). In this article, we review relevant mentoring and emotionality literature specific to issues of gender and race-ethnicity.

Mentoring Relationships in Academe

A mentor is a “member of the profession or organization who shares values, provides emotional support, career counseling, information and advice, professional and organizational sponsorship, and facilitates access to key organizational and professional networks,” whereas a mentee is simply described as “a member of an organization who benefits from having a mentor” (Kalbfleisch, 2000, p. 59). Kalbfleisch (2000, 2002) has researched the role that communication plays in developing relationships between mentors and mentees. In doing so, she advanced mentoring enactment theory, which focuses on the communication processes involved in “initiating, maintaining, and repairing relationships and the use of routine and strategic communication to accomplish these tasks” (Kalbfleisch, 2007, p. 501). Mentoring enactment theory assumes that “communication is central to the initiation, maintenance, and repair of mentoring relationships” (Kalbfleisch, 2002, p. 63). This assumption is based on the premise that human relationships, including mentoring, are not easily formed and developed and once established, require communication to sustain them (Kalfleisch, 2007). Although Kalbfleisch’s theory prioritizes communication, it does not sufficiently account for the role of emotion in mentoring. Our study adds the crucial element of emotion to the communicative constitution of mentoring relationships.

Kalbfleisch’s (2000, 2007) research also touches on issues of “difference” in mentoring processes. She explains that personal factors of both mentor and mentee can affect their chosen communicative strategies and the development of the mentoring relationships. Personal factors include “past relationships, personality, perception, experience, culture, gender, and race” (p. 508). Kalbfleisch (2000) found that mentors tend to prefer same-gender mentees, consistent with similarity and attraction theories (e.g., Berscheid & Walster, 1969). In terms of race-ethnicity, in an earlier study of African American professionals’ career development, Kalbfleisch and Davies (1991) found that racial similarity was also significant in forming mentoring relationships.

In line with the mentoring enactment theory and subsequent research, we see mentoring as communicatively constructed in ways that affect the participants, especially those deemed as “others” or “outsiders” who are unlikely to have the supportive relationships of dominant group members (e.g., Sloan, Newhouse, & Thompson, 2013). People considered as “different” from dominant group members, whether through gender, race, nationality, class, sexuality, or other markers, are both disadvantaged and advantaged in complex ways, depending on how identities come to bear on particular situations (Davis, 2008; Dhamoon, 2011; Holvino, 2008; Winkler & Degele, 2011). We highlight two identity intersections, gender and race-ethnicity, that can shape one’s mentoring experience. In this case study, gender and race-ethnicity emerged to be the most salient characteristics of “difference” that influence mentoring relationships and are especially important when applied to the STEM disciplines where women and some ethnic groups (e.g., African, Latina/o, Native Americans) tend to be underrepresented minorities.

Gender is a central component in U.S. academic mentoring relationships (O’Brien, Biga, Kessler, & Allen, 2010). In her collection of mentoring narratives from women in academe, Rushing (2006) found that “women often form personal relationships in academia with men, who attempt to mold them [women] to fit their own masculine ideals” (p. 40). The process is inherently emotional because women oftentimes need to hide their femininity and manage the feminine-perception of feelings when in an organizational context.

The intersecting roles of race and gender cannot be overstated in the engineering discipline. According to the a paper published as part of the 2013 ASEE Profiles of Engineering and Engineering Technology Colleges (Yoder, 2013), women accounted for only 22.4% of awarded doctoral degrees, which is less than one percent increase from the previous year. Furthermore, women who are tenured or tenure-track faculty comprised only 13.8% of engineering faculties, and African and Hispanic Americans accounted for merely 2.5% and 3.7% of engineering faculty, respectively. San Miguel (2010) tackled the topic of race-ethnicity and the professional mentoring relationship. This research examined the way that Latino women in science and engineering benefited from mentoring experiences in terms of both personal and professional success. Results indicated that mentors’ and mentees’ gender and race affected the mentoring relationship and how the participants experienced emotion in the workplace. In order to increase the “presence, retention, and advancement of women scholars in engineering is to improve mentoring processes” (Chesler & Chesler, 2002) and address the so-called the “diversity problem” in engineering (Chubin, May, & Babco, 2005, p. 73).

Emotions in the Workplace

Whereas much of the mentoring research focuses on the forms (formal, informal), initiation and maintenance strategies, career and psychosocial functions, and outcomes of mentoring (Ragins & Kram, 2007), most overlooks the fundamentally emotional aspects of mentorship. Emotions are central to initiating and maintaining mentoring relationships, whereby mentoring partner(s) regulate the outward display of workplace emotions to align with relational and organizational norms. Questions related to the role of emotions in mentoring relationships become especially important when applied to a traditionally masculine field, such as engineering, where stereotypically feminine processes (e.g., emotional expression) are subjugated in a context that prioritizes rational forms of organizing.

Certainly, emotions are not limited to “feminine” work contexts but are an inherent part of organizational life anywhere, even seemingly rational work settings such as STEM disciplines. Further, people communicatively constitute emotion (Tracy, 2004) through complex relational processes of enacting different emotional display rules (Buzzanell & Turner, 2003, 2012). Miller and Koesten (2008), for example, studied the emotional character of financial planning, a field they described as “a highly rational and numbers-driven business” (p. 9). Financial planners explained that relationship development and maintenance with clients were crucial parts of their job, which they facilitated both communicatively and emotionally.

Communication is the process through which members express and suppress workplace emotions. As Tracy (2004) explained, in a workplace context, “real emotions. . . [are] constructed within the constraints of organizational communication” (p. 530). Through communicative processes, members create and reinforce emotional norms within organizations to make sense of emotions in seemingly rational work settings (Kramer & Hess, 2002). Interactions between and among members determine which feelings should be exhibited or hidden, often based on contextual cues and tacit knowledge. Organizational members communicatively express their emotions, often nonverbally, and talk through experiences to make sense of their own and others’ feelings and emotion displays (Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 2005), all of which emphasize the relational aspect of emotions.

Within a mentoring context, each party would need to manage their emotions to meet organizational expectations, as well as those of their mentees, mentors and, perhaps, the broader community. Just as emotionality can be “an alternative mode of organizing in which nurturing, caring, community, supportiveness, and interrelatedness are fused with individual responsibility to shape organizational experiences” (Mumby & Putnam, 1992, p. 474) within work and personal life constraints and opportunities (Miller, Considine, & Garner, 2007; Tracy, 2004), so, too, can mentoring be depicted as organizing and experiencing workplaces through emotionality.

Past communication research on organizational emotions has explored a variety of topics ranging from negative relationships (e.g., workplace bullying, see Lutgen-Sandvik, 2003, 2006; Lutgen-Sandvik & Tracy, 2012; Tracy, Lutgen-Sandvik, & Alberts, 2006) to positive workplace interactions (e.g., constructive organizing, see Lutgen-Sandvik, Riforgiate, & Fletcher, 2011; Lutgen-Sandvik & Sypher, 2009). Kramer and Hess (2002) examined ways negative and positive feelings are managed and expressed in the workplace. They found that displays deemed appropriate by co-workers tended to center on a portrayal of “professionalism,” which complements Morgan and Krone’s (2001) study in which caregivers attempted to maintain a professional appearance in the workplace. To be perceived as appropriate in an organizational context, employees were encouraged to mask felt and feign unfelt emotion. The general communication rules appeared to prioritize the rational by suppressing the emotional. However, rationality and emotionality frequently coexist and, indeed, support each other. We believe that the terms “rationality” and “emotionality” are gendered terms.

The ideas of rationality and emotionality bring the topic of gender to the forefront of the conversation, as masculine organizing tends to be viewed as rational and feminine as emotional, irrational, and thus undesirable (Mumby & Putnam, 1992; Putnam & Mumby, 1993). Buzzanell and Turner (2003, 2012) explored questions of gender differences and emotion looking at how recently unemployed men and their families used emotion work to cope with job loss and support each others’ productive identities. Through interview data with the men and their family members, Buzzanell and Turner (2003) argued that emotion work was gendered. They found three themes, foregrounding-backgrounding of emotions, normalcy, and (re)instituting of traditional masculinities (e.g., maintaining the role of breadwinner), that men used in order to make sense of their unemployment while maintaining situationally and gender appropriate feeling displays.

Summary and Research Question

In this study, we extend the concept of workplace emotions to a specific and under-studied organizational function and relationship— mentoring of women faculty members. In doing so, we examine the unique mentoring processes that take place in a traditionally masculine area of academe, engineering, where alternative and feminine forms of organizing and relationships have been minimized (e.g., see Buzzanell et al., 2012; Dohrman et al., 2013; Long et al., 2014), Phipps, 2008; Putnam & Mumby, 1993). In focusing on workplace emotions we acknowledge that, in general, women’s relational processes can be characterized as “different” (Bell, Golombisky, Singh, & Hirschmann, 2000; Buzzanell, 2009); although, not all women have or value alternate relational processes more than their male counterparts. Although not solely characterizing women mentees’ relationships with mentors, feminine processes are often described as caring, comforting, contradictory, ambivalent, loyal, spiritual, and alternative in their paths and detailed in their political insights (e.g., Allen, Day, & Lentz, 2005; Blass, Brouer, Perrewé, & Ferris, 2007; Buzzanell, 2009; Chesler & Chesler, 2005). This perspective highlights the emotional aspects of professional mentoring processes. Given the discussions above, we proposed the following research question: How do underrepresented women engineering faculty members engage in emotional work/management in everyday mentoring experiences?


Participants and Their Mentoring Situations

Our case study is part of a larger project that examined mentoring experiences within the College of Engineering (CoE) at a large Midwestern University. We completed thirteen interviews with both senior and junior engineering faculty members, including seven women and six men, of whom six were full professors, five associate professors, and two assistant professors. From the larger dataset, we analyzed three in-depth interviews—the entire subset of our interviews that included women underrepresented minority members (URMs) in the engineering faculty—to understand how they expressed emotions within their professional mentoring experiences, and being mentored along with eventually mentoring others.

We used the pseudonyms Nakala, Maria, and Yolanda for our three participants in this case study. Nakala was an assistant professor as well as a CoE underrepresented minority. Nakala reported positive mentoring experiences “so far.” She depicted her workplace as inclusive with more than one “mentor that’s accessible and who has a heart to mentor, not just because they have to.” These people wanted to help her, had “open door policies,” were “encouraging,” “collegial and collaborative,” “respectful”—forming “a culture of mentoring.” Maria was a recently promoted and self-identified URM (hired as an international faculty member) who struggled with her workplace responsibilities and expectations. During her interview, we found that she was beginning to adjust to her new faculty role. Like Nakala, Maria had some positive experiences in terms of her informal mentoring experiences. However, she described her College’s formal mentoring system as “non-existent” and lacking. Finally, Yolanda was an associate professor who was recognized internationally for her work. She saw herself as different from many CoE faculty because she was an URM and a woman. Yolanda perceived her mentee experiences to be couched in a competitive and isolating environment: “I do think that, no matter what, the community is still a very isolated community and an isolating community.”


Our narrative interviews were semi-structured and focused broadly on mentoring processes as perceived by the faculty members. The questions were open-ended to encourage the women to tell us stories about or share examples of their mentoring experiences (Tracy, 2013). For example, we asked participants to describe the process that established their mentoring relationships and inquired as to what they felt were the memorable pieces of advice they received. The guided conversations lasted between 40 and 56 minutes with an average interview length of 50 minutes. Each of the three interviews was recorded and transcribed resulting in a total of 67 double-spaced pages of data. The transcriptions were then scrubbed in order to remove identifying information and analyzed using a constant comparative method to highlight emerging themes (Charmaz, 2006).

In this data analytic process, we independently and then collaboratively constructed codes that, over time, developed broad semantic patterns typifying mentoring communication and corresponding emotionality. For example, specific instances where participants reported that they hid elements of the personal life or created barriers between their home and work lives were later organized under the more general heading of compartmentalization of feelings. When we reached consensus about the themes, we returned to the data to look for negative cases as well as evidence to corroborate results (Lindlof & Taylor, 2011). Moreover, we situated the themes within the specific context of the participants’ lives and relationships producing narratives within which the thematic findings were couched, and returned to literature on mentoring, academe, and emotions to triangulate and further situate findings within the existing scholarship. In completing this iterative process we found that the shared mentoring stories coalesced around three themes: emotions and containment, emotions and integration, and emotions and reproduction.


Based on in-depth interviews with our entire subset of women engineering faculty, we were able to draw out themes of mentoring related to emotionality—being mentored and mentoring others—as depicted by three faculty members who reminisced on their experiences being mentored. Specifically, we tracked the emotional experiences of three underrepresented women engineering faculty from their newcomer days (Nakala), through recent promotion to tenured associate professor (Maria), and finally to an internationally known associate professor (Yolanda). We do not maintain that their experiences are typical of CoE and/or URM mentorship experiences, but rather that they provided insight into the diversity and depth of emotions present in mentoring processes. Their experiences were intermixed as we discussed emotion work in terms of mentoring processes—emotions and containment, emotions and integration, and emotions and reproduction—all of which involved the interplay between the professional and personal spheres of life. In doing so, we contribute to a greater understanding of women’s mentoring processes, especially women faculty of color, in the STEM disciplines.

Compartmentalizing the Professional and the Personal

Divisions between professional and personal were highlighted throughout our interviews. This separation caused faculty members to compartmentalize or contain the personal aspects of their career or home-life through the management of their emotions. The emotion management manifested in knowing which topics should be included in mentoring relationships as well as which and how emotions should be displayed appropriately in a given academic context.

As a whole, the interviewees said that their academic mentoring relationships tended to be primarily professional (e.g., improving grant writing skills) which, in turn, minimized the personal aspects (e.g., handling work-life issues). In general, the topics of conversation with their mentors/mentees focused on workplace and career concerns such as conference attendance, grant writing, research productivity, and teaching. For example, Yolanda said, “we have mentors—well, we have faculty who help us as we prepare our promotion and tenure documents.” Her response emphasized the professional nature of the mentoring processes in the CoE and insinuated that Yolanda felt like this was only a partial form of mentoring; one that is incomplete and should not be called mentoring. The missing portions, the personal topics, were not included in mentoring interactions, not just because of the private/public divide, but also because of feelings of difference. When asked if she talked to her mentors about work-life balance or personal issues she responded, “I probably need to talk to someone, but I don’t do that very often. Not here, no. . . [because] I see myself as being very different from many of the people who are here, even from a gender perspective.”

Participants tended to maintain established boundaries between professional and personal, a process that involved emotion work. They described their mentoring relationships as professional while not admitting to the personal or emotional aspects of the process. For example, Yolanda’s emotion work resided in her containment of her emotions, her private life, and her identity. In an organizational culture that she described as “isolating” and “disrespectful,” she felt angered, frustrated, and emotionally exhausted both by being seen as receiving undeserved advantages as a result of her minority status, and being confused with other people of color. As Yolanda said, “I feel that I do have to work harder, or have to be really concise, just to be accepted within this field. . . I was tired of people confusing me with the other minority woman in the college, and I thought it was disrespectful.” Whereas her feelings lie below the surface of her words, Yolanda did not label or recognize her experiences as overtly emotional.

Yolanda concealed her private life from public life (“I realized that I did not want to take frustration home with me, you know, to my spouse” and “like I’m here to work, I’m not here to make friends, and that works best for me”). She noted that others in her department were different from her, but did not provide specific demographic information. She described her co-workers as “quirky,” a characteristic that she would not subscribe to herself. Additionally, Yolanda strategically separated her personal and professional selves to protect her intellectual property and her personhood:

Like I said that I separate my person from my professional. Now when it comes to this particular environment, I have seen people have conversations and, all of a sudden, those conversations end up in grants; you know, people will take ideas, they will pursue their own things, and because that has happened to me more than once, I don’t really engage with people in this area, because I think that our research areas are too close or it’s too easy to, you know, take something, take an idea and not give someone credit, and then get funding for that. So I just think. . . there’s this issue of ownership and competition.

In contrast to her relational and emotional containment between the professional and personal, Yolanda engaged in expansion of her emotion (venting), her identity (being truthful to herself), and her relations (building and maintaining long-term relations with others) outside of workplace boundaries. As she explained, “I don’t want to engage with colleagues outside, because I prefer to embrace another culture that is not a part of this department. . . things that I really don’t see a lot.” In rejecting her constructions of her departmental culture and embracing an alternative site of belonging, Yolanda acted as her own agent with convictions and deliberate action to foreground an emotional world in which she thrives, contributes, and expresses her identity anchors, processes essential to resilience (Buzzanell, 2010).

Like Yolanda, Nakala’s mentoring experience also centered on her manipulation of emotional boundaries, in her case, by constructing and developing a mentoring network. Emotional boundaries are emotional forces that influence the nature, intensity, and duration of emotions experienced at work in particular contexts (Hayward & Tuckey, 2011). In the mentoring networks, these emotional forces manifest themselves in the formations, evolutions, and the strengths and functions of ties. In developing her own mentoring network, Nakala was vigilant in managing emotional boundaries with her mentors, who provided different functions to help her achieve work-related goals and promote professional growth. Nakala told us about her goal to develop a nine-person mentoring network that would cover different aspects of her career (e.g., writing at various stages of completion, grant proposals, journal outlets). She explained:

There are nine categories of mentors, and the mentors should—I mean. . . mentors in writing [would help you] at different stages of your writing. So, when you have it 0 to 25 percent ready, 25 to 50 percent, 75—you know, who you could show your draft, your documents to when it’s, like, really rough, and who could you show it to when it’s finalized. And this [person] is for grant proposals, journals. . . . Who is sort of your support? Who could you go to for emotional support?

Furthermore, Nakala managed the emotional distance by establishing multiple mentors so that she could talk to various people about different issues, rather than relying on a single mentor. After talking about a number of female colleagues who informally mentor her on a variety of topics on an as-needed basis (e.g., teaching, dress codes), Nakala then shared her rationale for choosing two formal mentors that would be recognized by the CoE.

And so I chose the two people—there were, like, three people that were on my list and that I could’ve chosen, but I just boiled it down to those two because it’s the most natural interactions. One has a very close research area. Another is not necessarily close to my research area but very accessible, has given me lots of good advice on a variety of topics, from choosing a student, what to say in e-mail, I mean, practical things, like how do you solicit a student to work with you, I mean, lots of advice like that.

From an emotional perspective, the multiple mentoring constellations served as a protective mechanism to Nakala in the sense that she did not have to reveal her vulnerability to one single mentor or become too attached to that person. On a more positive side, she possibly had multiple social supports and more resources to facilitate her development. As described by Nakala,

I’m. . . just making sure that I have feedback when it comes to research, and doing things and getting properly acclimated to the department’s culture. . . making sure that I’m doing the types of things that really matter when I do annual reviews. . . . Outside of the university or outside the department, it’s more like just maybe some things that are nitty-gritty and sort of, okay, well, how do you handle this type of a situation? I haven’t had major or bad situations. I got advice once on a prospective student. . . . And then I have peer mentors. Peer mentors, I mean, anyone down the hall, I just say, “Hey, how do you talk about this?” or “How do you do that?”

In terms of emotions, Nakala’s networks (inside, outside, peer, informal, and formal) served as containers where she stores certain mentoring topics. She determined who would be an appropriate mentor from whom to seek advice depending on the situation; she managed her emotions to maintain these relationships and corresponding divisions. To manage the emotional boundaries in the networked mentoring relationship, Nakala kept a certain level of emotional distance from her mentors. Specifically, Nakala engaged in emotional work via foregrounding her professional self and backgrounding her personal self, similar to Yolanda. Throughout the interview, Nakala did not mention seeking mentoring on non-work issues and explicitly discussed how she kept her mentoring relationships strictly professional. As said by Nakala, “I wouldn’t go to these mentors to talk to about personal, you know, let’s say, health issues. You know, that’s not what I think they’re good for. I think they’re best for research-related. . . things that are going to count towards my success as an academic, as a researcher.” Indeed, Nakala’s definition of mentoring centered on “help[ing] me do something quickly, efficiently, and increase[ing] the probability of success.” Speed, efficiency, and external success were emphasized over taking things slowly, internal rewards, and relational outcomes that went beyond professional settings (Rushing, 2006). For Nakala, emotion work was used to regulate feelings so that these were in line with organizational expectations or relational norms based on the network constellation—critical for the political process of promotion in academe.

Integrating the Professional and Personal

A second complimentary, yet contradictory, theme was the integration of the personal into professional mentoring relationships. Participants described seeking these relationships with the intent of including personal topics. However, this focus again created a boundary in terms of which mentoring relationships included emotion and/or personal topics and which did not. One way that the personal became incorporated in their professional mentoring experiences was through relationship development. Participants explained that over time and through interactions, they built stronger relationships with their mentors, which resulted in an increased level of trust and comfort as well as the inclusion of personal topics.

There were a few instances where the personal entered into the professional mentoring relationships. Yolanda purposefully built these relationships by expanding, rather than containing, her relational self. She actively engaged in “more than just a surface level” relationships with those who advocated for her or were seen as similar to her, “I’ve gotten to know them outside of a professional environment, or I’ve gotten to know them outside of that traditional environment.” She went on and illustrated this point by sharing with us her mentoring relationship with one of her peers:

I talk about the situations that go on here, and I guess I vent to her, but she is very similar to me, you know, culturally, you know, just values, we have similar values, and I trust her. And I think there are a lot of people in higher education whose motivations are somewhat different, and I don’t think some people are very trustworthy, because, you know, sometimes it’s about the dollar, it’s about the next position, and that’s another reason that I do not try to kind of cross the line with everyone when it comes to work and when it comes to this environment.

Maria also provided an example of a mentoring relationship that moved past strictly professional topics (e.g., conference attendance, grant writing, and research productivity) to include some personal elements, like dealing with hurt feelings. The mentoring provided in these relationships evolved to navigating politics and advocating for one’s interests. Maria’s mentor, an older male professor who was the former department head, helped her to navigate academic politics. Maria implied that she missed his guidance when this mentor left the university and their mentoring relationship weakened as a result.

Maria saw this mentor as a consistent source of mentoring on whom she relied for political advice in handling problematic male faculty. Maria first introduced her mentor to us by explaining his role in general, “I was comfortable with a certain faculty member which actually was the department head and personally, whenever I had a problem, I felt comfortable going and asking for help, and I knew that he would always support me and give me advice.” Through this example, Maria showed how she felt at ease in her mentoring relationship because she had put in effort and time to develop the relationship and build trust with her mentor. She then provided instances of when she would ask for his advice starting with the professional and moving to more personal and emotional topics:

. . . about my strategy, for example, do you think I should focus on applying for more proposals this fall, or do you think I should organize this conference? Do you think that’s a good idea to organize a conference, given that it’s a very important time commitment? How do you think that will affect my time? And I also went to him when I had conflicts.

Maria provided two examples of conflicts that her mentor helped her to address. First, she described an instance when she was required to share office space with several colleagues. She expressed her concern and frustration with not having a private workspace. Her mentor then “navigated this relationship with the others, and he put a wall in the middle of the lab so I could have my space.” Another example she shared was when one colleague was putting Maria down in front of students. She told us that she was upset by the comments made by a male associate professor and decided to express her frustrations to her mentor. The situation was resolved after Maria’s mentor made a blanket statement to the senior faculty members in the department about talking to assistant professors and about mentoring assistant professors in general. In addition, the mentor assigned the first faculty member to Maria’s annual review so that he could see her progress and possibly become an “advocate” for Maria.

However, if those relationships did not exist and trust did not develop through emotion work, junior faculty members would have had to find other mentoring resources, and build trust in non-traditional ways. Maria specifically discussed university-wide initiatives for faculty advancement and female faculty support. She explained that one of her groups met “once in a blue moon” while the other hosted events about once a month. Maria found these to be useful career development tools, although she did not view them as alternative forms to mentoring:

I think those are beneficial, although not directly to my work but in general terms, to learn about other women’s issues and what you could do. . . I’m focusing on getting promoted in a few years to full professor, and it is less clear. . . .Once I became an associate professor, I became interested in what are the requirements for the next step, and they are less clear, they are more fuzzy, less clear. So, by going to the meetings, I kept asking around. . . “How did you do this?” or “What do you think I should focus on?” more than in my own department, much more.

In addition, she referenced non-human sources, such as books, as mentoring. These mentoring sources provided advice outside of the tenure and promotion process and included personal topics like children: “I actually read a bunch of books. I didn’t have lots of people to talk to, so I bought a bunch of books. I read about what should I do, how should I run my lab, instead of asking people.” These sources advised Maria to not “speak up” and to “hide your children.” These advice messages required Maria to conceal certain aspects of herself (the personal) or internalize feelings that she might express in other settings.

This mentoring advice implied that conversations about these personal topics should be guarded if mentioned at all. Enacting these suggestions requires tremendous effort to eliminate personal emotions and experiences from professional settings. Again, this connects to personal and professional dichotomies that are replicated throughout the traditional mentoring process, but changes the way such divisions are enacted. When an emotion lens is applied to a trusting relationship, it is not characterized as a dichotomy but rather as a continuous effort to manage feelings as well as verbal and nonverbal displays of personal concerns, attachment, and commitment to non-work life aspects. We observed a continuous bleeding of the professional into the private—requiring conscious effort on the parts of mentors and mentees to integrate their professional and private roles in an organizationally and relationally appropriate manner.

Reproducing the Separation between the Professional and the Personal

During the course of our interviews, the women engineering faculty started to reflect on the ways in which their professional mentoring relationships contributed to their workplace outcomes, specifically their successes in terms of professional development. We also found that our participants seemed to reproduce their professional-only mentoring experiences as they made the transition to a mentor role. As with the previous themes, these comments were inherently emotional, but explicitly focused on the professional topics. Again, this distinction highlighted the separation between the personal and professional.

Achieving professional development as mentee. Professional development can take many forms. In terms of traditional academic standards, this growth can be measured through research, teaching, and service or engagement. Over time, the three women developed professionally as a result of the mentoring relationships they cultivated. For example, Yolanda explained that she had learned how to play the “game” of academe by recognizing and adopting the rules and norms associated with each situation. For example, she learned “within academia, it’s not about hard work; it’s about being efficient and knowing which projects you need to work on, how long you need to work on the projects, and just kind of like the rules of engagement.”

Yolanda prioritized following the “rules” as opposed to engaging in relational processes. She decided to focus primarily on those items that would help her reach her overarching goal of becoming a university president.

My whole resumé has been developed with that end goal in mind. So, in my thought processes, I always knew that I wanted more opportunities, and a way for me to get to more opportunities was to do what I’m doing but to do it really well. There may not be a second chance to engage in this process. So, you know, when I’m writing grants, sometimes people have an idea of, for example, oh, it might take 20 tries to get a grant. But my idea was always, if I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it well, I’m going to double-check it, I’m going to triple-check and make sure that it’s at that level where it needs to be so it is extremely competitive. So, I think my success rate with grants has been pretty high. . . . I realize that this environment is not one where I have distractions. . .to have more options, I’ve got to be focused now, and I kind of see that as my end goal.

Nakala also experienced professional development based on her mentoring experiences, especially since professional topics were emphasized in her network constellation. When discussing a group mentoring program at her university, Nakala explained how the structure and advice had helped her to be productive during her early career stage. She overlooked personal elements of the mentor and mentee in her account of the mentoring experience:

Our semester plan we should map out our whole semester, and every Sunday we have what you call a Sunday meeting, where you spend 30 minutes and you map out what you’re supposed to do that week that’s going to be toward your objectives, and your semester plan should have writing goals, research goals, personal goals. . . . I have all the things like. . . co-PI at least one grant, PI at least one grant. So, you know, you have this system for being productive. And I’ve been very productive, and I have not been very stressed, because I’m adapting these healthy habits. Because a lot of times you transition from grad student to faculty and you have these habits that you’ve developed since undergrad, which is binge writing, or you work 10 hours the night before, you know?

The hope was that through mentoring and the corresponding professional development, mentees would successfully make it through the tenure and promotion process and later to full professor.

Maria also recognized the professional development that stemmed from her mentoring relationships. However, she seemed to struggle with the realization that her recent promotion moved her into a different status, one that was accompanied by less mentoring. In conversation, she would reflect back on her past mentoring experiences, talking about how she did not receive the level of help she previously had or how she was no longer invited to lunches. Maria stated, “while I was an assistant professor, we were going to lunch almost every day, and that was also a very important source of information about how the department works, how to fit in, and even, I got a grant out of that.” This peer mentoring was a valuable mentoring experience that helped to develop Maria as she proceeded through her academic career. Maria then explained, “they [fellow assistant and associate professors] invited me to lunch for a while. Now they don’t do that anymore,” not since she received tenure. She perceived that her peers no longer thought that she needed help to navigate the academic landscape.

Promoting professional development as mentor. Our participants initially discussed growth in terms of their professional success. They reported that they received grants, increased productivity, improved research, and developed their pedagogical skills through mentoring. Nevertheless, growth was more than just individual accomplishments. Rather, the women were entering leadership roles that other, newer, faculty members could replicate. They were beginning to mentor other faculty toward success. This career transition led to Maria’s new role, that of mentoring others by acting as an advocate, rather than just giving advice or stepping in during annual reviews. Like Yolanda, Maria critiqued the current college system and expressed frustration and dissatisfaction with the formal mentoring process “we have these people who meet with you and they change every year and they are not invested in your progress; since they are not your mentor every year, and next year they will be somebody else’s, they are not invested in you. And honestly, I had one fall asleep during our discussions.” Her experience changed the way she viewed mentoring relationships and resulted in her conceptualization of what a good mentor should be, specifically an advocate for others:

I think a mentor should be your advocate. A mentor is someone who is interested that you succeed, right? So he’s invested in your success—he or she—and is trying to kind of be proactive in helping you achieve your goals, right? Give you their honest opinion, try to promote you. More than just giving their opinion, also I think trying to kind of promote you to outside, introduce you to other people, being invested in your general professional development, beyond just giving the advice . . . that may be good and sometimes may not be good (laugh), because it’s your own opinion, right? So, being an advocate in front of the department for you. That means you’re a real mentor for that person.

Maria’s new role as an associate professor changed the way she views mentoring. She seemed to be finding agency by beginning to mentor others. Because she was unsure about how to label her relationships since she was not formally designated as mentor, she exhibited emotion work in this transition by trying to mentor without stepping on toes. Maria discussed two mentees during her interview. First, she talked about a newly minted male faculty member whom she mentored, but she hedged in calling herself a mentor. She explained,

I wouldn’t call myself a mentor because maybe I offend him (laugh), because he [is] also an assistant professor but just two years. But I often meet with him and . . . try to give him advice. . . . I would just tell him what I think from my experience; we did that for several years.

Maria started to adjust to the idea of being a mentor and to seek out opportunities to mentor others: “and now, I am really very intent in working with new female faculty member.” Building mentoring relationships has not been easy. Maria discussed how she was beginning to feel out the new female assistant professor, “I’m inviting her to lunch, and I would like to kind of see how I can give back and see if I can become a mentor for her. You know, if the chemistry is there, things will work well. . .” This quote highlights how mentoring processes are replicated as the professional is prioritized in terms of what Maria can offer to new mentees.

Growth through mentoring also was associated with an important emotional process and outcome, resilience. For instance, our participants implied that they were less impacted by the negative experiences that can occur both in the mentoring process and the workplace as a whole. Yolanda expressed this sentiment when she mentioned that she did not want to take her workplace feelings of frustration, isolation, and difference home with her. Her approach might reduce some of the consequences associated with workplace emotions such as decreased job satisfaction, stress, and burnout (Ashforth & Humphrey, 1993; Hochschild, 1983; Tracy, 2000; Wharton, 1999). This backgrounding of the negative and foregrounding of productive action is essential to the communicative construction of resilience (Buzzanell, 2010), which gets at the ability for employees to recover and learn from career setbacks as well as to establish relational networks to assist and mentor themselves and others.

In sum, the interview data showed that these women are advancement-oriented and are interested in learning how to be productive and successful faculty members. While they appreciate the rational goals and the ways the current mentoring system helps them achieve professional development, women faculty expressed that they need more than a “mentor” who checks their annual progress and presents their case to the faculty committee that oversees promotion. The part that is lacking is a longing for the kinds of camaraderie and collegiality that comes from transcending the professional and operating in more personal relationship forms so that their identities as whole humans are legitimized. As such, women faculty members simultaneously experience tensions of compartmentalizing and integrating emotions in work and personal life. They draw and redraw boundaries for what is appropriate in encounters and relationships with others as they get to know their colleagues and develop trusting relationships. Their emotionality seems to be at the center of their attempts to adhere to the work-life, professional-personal, rational-emotional dualisms that they perceive to be part of their professional mentoring system. All in all, we have observed an appreciation for the practical and rational system that attempts to tell people what to do so that they’ll be successful (e.g., advice giving) and the kind of interactive, relational, trust-based relationship in which their other professional-personal interests can be legitimized and discussed.

Implications for Mentoring Theory and Practice

The examination of workplace emotions offers another area in which researchers can find out how members of underrepresented groups handle the everyday politics and pressures of academic life. In this case, we uncovered the unique ways that URM women experience mentoring and correspondingly workplace emotions in a traditionally masculine environment. The participants shared examples of feeling isolated in their workplace, disrespected by colleagues, or frustrated because of the lack of comprehensive mentoring structures. These women were forced or felt compelled to find alternative means and forms of mentoring (e.g., books/websites, women-specific groups, network constellations) that would not only supplement partial mentoring, but also serve a protective function; one that would enable the women to control their emotional boundaries. With our focus on emotions in general, we learned about how these women, who hold positions in male-dominated fields that rely on traditionally masculine forms of organizing, navigate/manage tensions between personal and professional, and emotionality and rationality. We found that the women engineering faculty members relied on complimentary yet seemingly oppositional strategies of compartmentalization and integration, ultimately reifying the dominant form of organizing by reproducing the mentoring structure. This reoccurring process seemed to give them a feeling of power/ownership in their mentoring experience.

Theoretical Implications About Mentoring

This study contributes to research at the intersections of mentoring and emotions by conceptualizing emotionality as an organizing force that shapes the communicative construction of women’s mentoring experiences. Different from previous studies that viewed emotional work as involuntary/self regulating efforts to conform to relational and organizational norms (Kramer & Hess, 2002), women in our studies were found to employ emotionality as a form of agency that structured their mentoring relationships. Emotionality constitutes the organizing force of mentoring experience for women in the following aspects.

First, the emotion management process in mentoring draws parallels to the work-to-family and family-to-work “spillover” in work-life literature (Kirby, Golden, Medved, Jorgenson, & Buzzanell, 2003; Sotirin, 2008; Townsley & Broadfoot, 2008). If professional mentoring for promotion and tenure is considered normative, then mentoring to handle personal aspects and corresponding emotional tensions also should be supported by the institution. These women did not seem to see their paid work and advancement as the only aspects of their career. They extended and contracted personal boundaries based on their perceived professional and personal needs. The tension between professional and personal meant that they destabilized conceptualizations of and practices for mentoring. With this tension in mind, the emotions experienced by women in their everyday work life have motivated them to seek various forms of mentoring within and outside of their professional/organizational boundaries. In their discourse of their mentoring experiences, the women engineering faculty cited feelings of isolation (e.g., Yolanda), disorientation (e.g., Nakala), and vulnerability (e.g., Maria) as reasons to search for additional mentoring outlets. These women sought and engaged in mentoring to achieve an emotional state where they feel connected, supported, valued and empowered. Mentoring is particular important to the URM women engineering faculty members to achieve emotional wellbeing as they may experience multiple forms of marginalization at the intersections of power structures of gender, race-ethnicity, and culture in a predominately white engineering school (Buzzanell et al., in press). Highlighting the emotional dimension to understand mentoring, we direct our attention to how mentoring can foster individual wellbeing, sustainable growth, and diversity and inclusion (Long et al., 2014), in addition to tangible career outcomes such as tenure and promotion success.

Second, emotionality also shapes how women manage their emotional display and emotional investment in different mentorships. In all cases, women engaged in multiple forms of mentoring with a network of mentors. Emotions were managed differently for each type of mentorships, be it formal/informal, dyadic/group, human/nonhuman, and long term/episodic mentoring. By containing and integrating boundaries of emotions, women assigned different functions to mentors and valence to these relationships. In terms of functions, mentorship can focus on transferring (technical) knowledge of a particular domain (e.g., provide feedback on the first draft of a grant proposal), socializing mentees into new roles and helping mentees navigate their careers (e.g., work with mentee to develop her career goals and strategies to get there), and/or advocating for the mentee on her behalf whereby care, trust and commitment become essential to sustain the relationship (e.g., making the case for the mentee in a tenure and promotion process). In terms of emotional investment, we found that when the functions of the mentorship focus on expertise sharing, women tend to showcase emotions that are deemed "professional" and tend not to invest in relationships at more personal levels. In contrast, the women expressed a wider breadth of emotions in more authentic and spontaneous ways when they are in mentoring relationships where they view their mentors as advocates.

Finally, when viewed from a perspective centered on emotions, mentoring highlighted the communicative constitutions of resiliency as these women work through career and personal life challenges to create a new normal that helps them achieve their goals (Buzzanell, 2010). Our study illuminated at least two ways whereby resiliency is constituted in and through mentoring. First, women actively foreground positive emotions, and background negative emotion in the mentoring process, which is essential in establishing resiliency (Buzzanell, 2010). Furthermore, we found women building networks of mentors where they have the potential to maximize emotional support and minimize the emotional cost and risks to enhance their resiliency.

Practical Implications for Mentoring

Pragmatically, such insights can lead to more productive interventions in the recruitment and retention of engineering faculty, particularly URMs. Further inquiry into the communicatively constitutive nature of emotions in faculty mentoring would allow identification of best practices for departments and universities interested in developing more inclusive mentoring systems, which could have profound impacts in the STEM discipline as well as across academe (e.g., recruitment, retention, and development of URM faculty members, see Chesler & Chesler, 2002). Thus, research related to the development of more inclusive and comprehensive mentoring policies and programs could counter the sentiments of “isolation” expressed by our participants.

With that notion in mind, we propose two broad suggestions for practical applications from our findings: development of comprehensive mentoring programs and incorporation of mentoring into the recruitment and retention of URMs in STEM. First, given the importance that the CoE placed on mentoring as evidenced by formal mentoring programs, ongoing events, and other emphases, we assumed that mentoring would be envisioned more broadly than our findings indicate. At present, our participants depict the CoE formal mentoring program as very traditional insofar as senior faculty are assigned annually to review the junior faculty members’ progress. Our data suggest that personal-professional integration in a (perceived) safe environment might minimize strains associated with employing emotional labor strategies to containment of topics and emotions. This imposed separation is especially important to consider in organizational contexts given that the boundaries between home and work are becoming less clear (Kirby et al., 2003; Wieland, 2011). Constructing a culture of mentoring involves daily emotion work on everyone’s part as well as greater openness to mentoring as inclusive of, but more than, professional career development. We advocate a comprehensive mentoring design that enlarges the topics included (e.g., personal, work-life balance, diversity concerns, development of resilience) as well as the structure of the mentoring relationship itself (e.g., formal, informal, peer, mentoring constellations or networks).

To facilitate the development of comprehensive mentoring programs, we believe that individual departments must demonstrate commitments to various forms of mentoring, such as formal, informal, peer, and network. In addition, the development of mentors and mentees should become a priority. This suggestion is based on participants’ criticisms of their mentors and would support the benefits often associated with positive mentoring experiences, such as increased commitment, productivity, and satisfaction (Ragins & Kram, 2007). Initial applications of comprehensive mentoring policies could include a variety of programs geared toward improving mentoring processes. For example, mentoring retreats and faculty workshops could be organized to help identify strengths and weaknesses of current practices, understand the experiences of faculty members, and clarify the ways in which mentoring takes place. Mentoring retreats could be used in order to devote time to improving the understanding of mentoring broadly. Throughout our interview data we saw that faculty members felt as though they did not have “advocates” and “sponsors” who would support them both professionally and personally (Ibarra & Hunter, 2007). Retreats serve as times when people can set expectations for what mentoring relationships should look like. They offer opportunities to probe into the experiences of current faculty members, identify areas of improvement, and develop participatory mentoring systems in which multiple perspectives are included. Similarly, faculty workshops could aid in the development of faculty members who serve as both mentors and mentees as well as encourage more people to actively engage in various forms of mentoring. The departments could reap the benefits of fostering healthy mentoring environments.

Limitations and Future Directions

With regard to limitations, we acknowledge that we analyzed a set of interviews that was admittedly small in number but rich in detail and nuance. Whereas these interviews provide a thick description of participants’ mentoring experiences and corresponding emotion work, we would need additional interviews to begin to draw conclusions about mentoring in engineering at this locale and in general. In addition, we did not ask specific questions regarding emotion. Rather, we uncovered the inherently emotional nature of mentorship as we focused on participants’ general mentoring experiences.

Our findings are suggestive of future research in terms of emotions and mentoring in academe. As our participants indicate, it is necessary but not sufficient to understand how mentoring leads to professional accomplishments for particular career milestones. With that in mind, we recommend that communication scholars investigate the development and evolution of mentoring networks that meet not only the three oft-cited mentoring functions of career development, psychosocial support, and role modeling, but also human resilience processes in academic careers. This research would not only highlight the emotional nature of engaging in mentoring relationships, but also provide a visual representation of how mentoring nodes and linkages configure into different mentoring networks over time.

In conclusion, we found that faculty members wanted to be part of mentoring processes, although they were hesitant to include personal topics and emotions within these relationships because they wanted to protect themselves and their careers. This finding was especially salient when applied to URM female faculty members, who described themselves as both similar to and different from majority faculty members in the STEM disciplines. Thus, recognizing how privilege and difference influence their experience with mentoring processes especially from the lens of emotionality can offer possibilities for more inclusionary institutional cultures.


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Author Notes:

Lindsey B. Anderson (Ph.D., Purdue University) is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her main research interests include organizational communication, aging in the workplace, and employee emotion.

Ziyu Long (Ph.D., Purdue University) is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Colorado State University. Her research interests include career, entrepreneurship, and gendered organizing in the globalized and digitalized workplace.

Patrice M. Buzzanell (Ph.D., Purdue University) is a Distinguished University Professor of Communication in the Brian Lamb School of Communication and Professor of Engineering Education by Courtesy at Purdue University. She is the Chair and Director of the Susan Bulkeley Butler Center for Leadership Excellence at Purdue. Her research centers on the everyday negotiations and structures that produce and are produced by the intersections of career, gender, work-family, and communication.

Klod Kokini (Ph.D., Syracuse University) is a Professor in the School of Mechanical Engineering and the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering by courtesy. He is also the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in the College of Engineering at Purdue University. He has initiated collaborations with faculty in social sciences to study issues related to gender in engineering and how mentoring can impact faculty.

Jennifer C. Batra is a doctoral student in the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University. Her research draws upon her 10 years’ work experience in local, state, and national government and seeks to understand the dynamics between organization structures and team performance.

Robyn F. Wilson is a third year student in the College of Science at Purdue University majoring in biology. She has participated in multidisciplinary research teams on mentoring (Colleges of Liberal Arts and Engineering) and mitochondrial transport (College of Science).

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