Betty-Ann's Both Sides Blog

Mentorship Helps Close the Gender Gap, Benefiting Both Women and Companies

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Many successful executives will credit a mentor; an advisor, a teacher, someone who kept them engaged while they advanced their careers. Maybe even someone who opened doors as they learned the ropes. This is especially true for women. Today, forward-thinking companies realize that mentorship helps close the management gender gap. The most successful way for a company which is committed to diversity, to be sure that women receive the benefits of mentorship is to make formal programs available.

In the immortal words of Joseph Heller, it’s a Catch 22. Women need mentorship, yet it isn’t easy for them to secure a mentor informally. Informal mentorship happens much more naturally with men. Perhaps, it is because male executives (who still far outnumber women) see a younger version of themselves (an extension of self) in the new hire who is then nurtured, groomed and taken along to golf or attend a sporting event with the big clients.

Typically, looking in from the outside, women forge ahead approaching the limited number of senior, more experienced women, and asking, “will you mentor me?” As Sheryl Sandberg points out in her book, Lean In, this is unlikely to garner the intended result, in part, due to the scale of the request.  Instead, she suggests asking for business advice on a specific problem and to allow the relationship to evolve naturally.

I always recommend that women approach finding a mentor like dating. You wouldn’t walk up to someone and ask them to be your boyfriend without spending time with them first to see if there was chemistry. Mentorship is the same. Offer to take a prospective mentor for coffee. Glean as much information as possible to determine if you are a good fit and could meet again.

The ideal scenario is for women to have more than one mentor. They can achieve this by employing their own individual initiative to find a mentor and joining a company that makes a formal mentoring program available to them. These formal programs can be internal, or the company can support them externally. What is important is that they are made available, and remember quality counts.

Those who have well-matched and connected mentors can expect to enjoy more promotions because they help women to raise their visibility and showcase their skills. Research shows that (by a ratio of almost three to two) women who find mentors through formal programs receive more promotions than those who attain mentors on their own.

Until the day that the number of women executives more closely equals the number of men, we can’t assume that women, like men, will readily find mentors informally. Committed to helping more women reach the decision-making table I founded the Womentorship Program at the Edwards School of Business, University of Saskatchewan. Each year we match junior women protégés with more experienced Womentors for one-on- one sessions, professional development and networking events.

Supported by Areva Resources Canada from the beginning, it gives me great satisfaction to see women graduate from our program walking taller and with more confidence. Unfortunately, not all companies are so forward thinking and many of the women in our program must pay their own tuition because of the lack of support from their employers. Some are even forced to use vacation time to attend our sessions.

Corporations often have a budget for women’s leadership training, yet these companies are ignoring the one element that would provide substantial returns. Research shows that when mentoring is coupled with training, women are more apt to stay and advance in the workforce.

Another significant result was cited by Iris Bohnet in her book Gender Equality by Design. Noticing that women were less likely to be promoted to tenure in economics than in other fields, the Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession started a mentoring program and coupled it with training. The results were monitored and it was found that those who participated in the program put out more publications and received more approvals for their grant applications than those who didn’t.

In corporate cultures where the mentoring of women is encouraged we also see a reduction of unconscious bias or prejudice which held in our
subconscious and unbeknownst to us, shapes our decisions each day. After mentoring I’ve personally observed men who initially had difficulty concealing their biased belief that working mothers were unsuited for management, later become their largest supporters. Suddenly, through a combination of the sharing of their own knowledge and the increased contact, the value of their female protégé became clearer.

As Dobbin and Kalev state in the Harvard Business Review article Why Diversity Programs Fail, mentorship reduces unconscious bias as managers believe that, “anyone that I sponsor must be deserving”. The article cites the fact that after 5 years of using a mentoring program 80 percent of mentees at Coca-Cola had climbed at least one rung up the proverbial ladder. This increased the company’s diversity in management and it now boasts a woman CFO, Kathy Waller.

Mentorship is not designed to rescue women and is certainly not meant as a substitute for them creating their own careers. Ultimately, we all have to take responsibility for our own success. However, besides helping to stem the leaky pipeline of women available to join the ranks of executives, mentorship increases the effectiveness of women’s leadership training and reduces the unconscious bias that limits their opportunities.

The bottom line is that in comparison to men who dominate the identity group of management in the corporate world, women as members of a minority are at a disadvantage. A mentor plays many important developmental roles including those of motivator, coach, champion and consultant to offset this disadvantage. Women’s leadership training combined with a formal mentorship program can help close the gender gap and reduce unconscious bias, ensuring that both women and companies are the beneficiaries.

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