Paradoxes of Mentoring: An Ethnographic Study of a Mentoring Programme for Highly-educated Women with Migrant Backgrounds


  • Tytti Steel University of Helsinki
  • Anna-Maija Lämsä
  • Marjut Jyrkinen



Ethnography, intercultural, mentoring, migrant women, paradox


This article explores paradoxes that emerge in the mentoring of highly-educated, female, foreign-born job-seekers in Finland. Theoretically, the study is linked to the growing body of research scrutinising the integration or discrimination of migrants in working life. It analyses cultural practices and ideas that are visible and affect the mentoring interaction. On a more practical level, the paper determines how the mentors and mentees experience the mentoring, and how intercultural mentoring could be improved in order to promote mentees’ employment. The article is based on ethnography and 11 semi-structured interviews.

Two major paradoxes and their links to cultural meanings were identified: the over-emphasised focus on Finnish language (the language paradox), and the myth of the strong Finnish woman (the support paradox). These can be seen as having aspects of both cultural awareness and situation-specific awareness. Using situation-specific awareness, some mentors understood the best way forward was to break the rules of the mentoring programme and not to use Finnish in all communication. This enabled a more equal setting for professional discussions. In some rare cases, when the mentors did not use situation-specific awareness, a vicious circle emerged and mentees felt even worse about their abilities and working life opportunities. Similarly, although the myth of the strong Finnish woman can be an empowering and positive model for the mentee, it can have a negative impact on the mentor, enabling undercurrents in the mentoring discussions which can be experienced as harsh and even hostile. This, instead of encouraging and supporting, can result in the undermining and ‘othering’ of the mentee.

Author Biographies

Tytti Steel, University of Helsinki

Tytti Steel is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Department of Culture, University of Helsinki. Her research interests include working life and employment especially from the point of view of minorities and “unemployable” groups. As an ethnologist she is interested in affects, emotions, interaction, and participatory research. E-mail:

Anna-Maija Lämsä

Anna-Maija Lämsä is Professor of Human Resource Management at the University of Jyväskylä, School of Business and Economics.  Her research interests include organizational and leadership ethics as well as career development, leadership development and work-family relationship from a gender perspective. E-mail:

Marjut Jyrkinen

Marjut Jyrkinen is Associate Professor in Working Life Equality and Gender Studies at the University of Helsinki and Research Director of the Social and Economic Sustainability of Future Working Life (WeAll) research consortium ( The consortium (No. 292883) is funded by the Strategic Research Council at the Academy of Finland (2015-20). Jyrkinen’s current research addresses emotional abuse at work, sustainability of working life, intersectionalities of gender, age and ethnicity, and gendered age and care in management and organizations. Email


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