“I would never have found a job without my mentor”

A mentor and mentee pair explain how integration efforts will suffer if KVINFO’s mentor network cannot secure the funding to continue after 2014

Before Inna Besserman met her mentor, she was desperate. The 30-year-old Russian had moved to Denmark with her Danish husband, and after 18 months of studying the language, she was having no luck in finding a job.

In late 2011, she discovered the mentoring programme established by KVINFO, the Danish centre for Information on Gender, and was paired with 59-year-old communications expert Birthe Berger. Within two months, Besserman was employed.

Besserman said that without Berger, she wouldn’t have stood a chance of breaking into the Danish labour market.

“For example, I wasn’t smiling in the photo I attached to my CV because in Russia it’s seen as very unprofessional,” Besserman said. “But when Birthe saw it she said to me: ‘Why on earth are you using that photo? It doesn’t look anything like you! You need to smile.’ She also corrected lots of small errors and reformulated my CV.”

The mentor programme was established in 2002 and has since matched over 3,200 mentor and mentee pairs. But despite earning international praise, the government announced last week that KVINFO would no longer receive money from the satspuljen, a fund for social initiatives that is agreed upon between all political parties except Enhedslisten.

The decision drew widespread condemnation, and by Wednesday over 4,100 people had signed a petition urging the government to reconsider.

“I think the loss of funding is terrible for all the women coming to Denmark,” Besserman said. “No-one else is making this type of contact.”

How to get and keep a job

The mentor programme matches mentors and mentees according to information they provide about their needs and expectations. Mentors describe their skill sets and what sort of individuals they think they could best help, while mentees explain what knowledge and experiences they want from a mentor.

Berger helped Besserman tidy up her Danish and present herself in a way that would better appeal to Danish employers. And once Besserman secured a job, she also helped her understand and adapt to the Danish work place.

“The working environment is very different to what I’m used to,” Besserman said. “Russia is much more hierarchical and formal. You never talk about your private life at work and you keep your distance.”

Besserman had particular difficulty knowing how to respond when one colleague told a crude joke or made fun of another colleague.

“Danish humour seems very tough to me and I couldn’t understand how rough they were with each other. I didn’t know how to respond: was I supposed to laugh along?”

Berger signed up as a mentor after reading about the programme in a newspaper and deciding she wanted to put her years of expertise as a communications expert and coach to good use.

She explained that KVINFO helped mentors structure the meetings with their mentees so that the mentees would benefit most from the relationship without either side feeling an undue obligation to the other.

“We have to be good listeners and keep the focus on the mentee,” Berger said, adding that they met for only an hour and a half every other month at neutral locations such as cafés, where they would pay for their own drinks.

“My only Danish friend”

Besserman and Berger’s relationship quickly developed beyond the guidelines KVINFO advised, however. They have taken long trips to the art museum Louisiana, read and discussed books together and gone to the cinema. Besserman even met once with Berger’s reading group.

As the two women sat and chatted in The Copenhagen Post offices, where this interview took place, it was clear that the two women are close.

“Birthe is the only Danish friend I have that is my own and not also my husband’s,” Besserman said, adding that Berger is a source of valuable insight. “She helps me understand things that I find strange or unusual and gives me solutions to the problems I face. She understands the challenge because she has also lived abroad.”

The loss of funding is a serious blow to the mentor network, which now has to find around 17 million kroner of funding by 2014. Without the funding, the programme may have to end, and with it a source of valuable insight for immigrants wanting to better integrate.

“I would never have found my job without the mentor programme,” Besserman said. “Birthe gives me a lot of professional guidance I couldn’t get from anywhere else.”

Besserman is confident that the two will continue seeing each other even if the mentor network closes. But without the funding, she knows that foreigners will have a much harder time finding Danes who are interested in reaching out and helping them adjust to their new lives.

“We don’t need KVINFO to maintain our relationship, but many women coming to the country will miss out on having a neutral sparring partner and mentor,” Berger said. “I think it’s sad.”