The title refers to a term I had not given much thought to in years, if not perhaps decades. But first let me mention what prompted the memory.
This weekend my daughter was competing at the State Odyssey of the Mind competition in Binghamton, NY. While waiting for her team to compete, I noticed a member of one of the other teams walking around with a stuffed, cloth sharkfin pinned to the back of a sport jacket.
This reminded me of a t-shirt my mom made for me years back with a similar design.
So, you may be asking yourself, “why?” and perhaps asking “what’s the point of this particular blog post”. I’ll endeavor to answer both. But first we have to jump back into the time machine and again go back to my days at RPI. The year is 1989 and I’m now helping out with the Student Orientation (SO) staff. We were a bunch of students who would return to RPI over the summer and help the incoming Freshman class get oriented while they visited RPI in prep coming in as students in the fall.
Back then, the ratio at RPI was pretty lopsided, it was 5 men for every one 1 women. This among other things lead to some women using the phrase, “The odds are good, but the goods are odd.” In a strictly mathematical sense this was in a way accurate, if a woman wanted to date, she had 5 men vying for her attention. The reality of course was much different. It meant that if a woman didn’t want to date, she still had 5 men vying for her attention. (Of course it was far more than that since things didn’t divvy up nearly as cleanly.)
This was a tough social environment and combine that with fairly geeky students who often didn’t develop good social skills in high school and you often ended up with a lot of awkward situations and honestly, some pretty bad behavior all around; hence the goods being odd.
And unfortunately, some SO staff weren’t immune from being problematic. We tried to self-police, but there were always the 1-2 men who would be extra friendly to the incoming women and like a shark swimming the waters, look for their easy prey. We called this sharking. We would look out for it among ourselves and try to stop anyone SO advisor we thought was doing it and if they were particular egregious, make sure they weren’t invited back the next year. But the problem definitely existed.
My mom, bless her heart made me a shirt with a shark fin on the back, not because I personally was a shark, or to mock the problem, but more to highlight the problem and help us be more self-aware.
So, this weekend I was reminded of sharking.
So why bring it up? Because, being a member of several communities, including IT savvy communities, caving, and others, I still see this as an ongoing problem; someone in a position of power or influence, preying upon the newcomers; often young women. Now it often can start out with the best of intentions and without the person meaning to. You see someone new, they ask for help. You decide to mentor them. You’re just being helpful, right? But then it becomes the extra friendly touch, the slight innuendo in a comment, the off-color joke or even the outright blatant consent violations.
Watch out for it. Don’t do it and if you catch others doing it, say something. Nip it in the bud. If you’re mentoring, mentor. Provide them with professional guidance and advice. Don’t use it as an opportunity to prey upon their naivete and lack of knowledge or experience. Remember, as a mentor, you are in a position of power and influence and so you should be like Spiderman and only use that power and influence for the greater good and to help them, not to help yourself.
And if you do for some reason find yourself slipping beyond the role of a mentor and your mentee also appears to be comfortable with this (hey, it does happen, we’re all human), then STOP BEING THEIR MENTOR. Make it clear that you can’t do both. A mentor, by definition and nature, is a position of influence. Don’t mix that with relationships in a professional setting. Just don’t.
As many of you know, I love teaching, it’s a reason I’m a cave rescue instructor and a reason I teach at SQL Saturdays and at other events. I encourage folks to teach and help mentor others. But please, be aware of boundaries and keep it professional.
Oh and a final note, I’m not immune to my own follies and mistakes and if you ever catch me crossing a line, by all means call me out on it. I don’t want to be “that guy”.