Mentorship is a relationship in which a more experienced or more knowledgeable person helps to guide a less experienced or less knowledgeable person. The mentor may be older or younger than the person being mentored, but he or she must have a certain area of expertise. It is a learning and development partnership between someone with vast experience and someone who wants to learn. Interaction with an expert may also be necessary to gain proficiency with/in cultural tools. Mentorship experience and relationship structure affect the "amount of psychosocial support, career guidance, role modeling, and communication that occurs in the mentoring relationships in which the protégés and mentors engaged."
The person in receipt of mentorship may be referred to as a protégé (male), a protégée (female), an apprentice or, in the 2000s, a mentee. The mentor may be referred to as a godfather or godmother or a rabbi.
"Mentoring" is a process that always involves communication and is relationship-based, but its precise definition is elusive, with more than 50 definitions currently in use. One definition of the many that have been proposed, is
Mentoring is a process for the informal transmission of knowledge, social capital, and the psychosocial support perceived by the recipient as relevant to work, career, or professional development; mentoring entails informal communication, usually face-to-face and during a sustained period of time, between a person who is perceived to have greater relevant knowledge, wisdom, or experience (the mentor) and a person who is perceived to have less (the protégé)".
Mentoring in Europe has existed since at least Ancient Greek times. Since the 1970s it has spread in the United States mainly in training contexts, with important historical links to the movement advancing workplace equity for women and minorities, and it has been described as "an innovation in American management".
William Blake's watercolor of "Age teaching youth", a Romantic representation of mentorship. Blake represented this type of relationship in many of his works, including the illustrations of his Songs of Innocence. The original object is currently held by Tate Britain
The roots of the practice are lost in antiquity. The word itself was inspired by the character of Mentor in Homer's Odyssey. Though the actual Mentor in the story is a somewhat ineffective old man, the goddess Athena takes on his appearance in order to guide young Telemachus in his time of difficulty.
In the United States, advocates for workplace equity in the second half of the twentieth century popularized the term "mentor" and concept of career mentorship as part of a larger social capital lexicon which also includes terms such as glass ceiling, bamboo ceiling,networking, role model, and gatekeeper—serving to identify and address the problems barring non-dominant groups from professional success. Mainstream business literature subsequently adopted the terms and concepts, promoting them as pathways to success for all career climbers. In 1970, these terms were not in the general American vocabulary; by the mid-1990s they had become part of everyday speech.