The importance of mentoring for women in the workplace


Mentoring for women

Gender inequality in the workplace isn’t a new problem. Although there’s been significant progress in creating gender equality in the workplace, our workforce is still unequal. Women are paid less than their male counterparts and there are so few female CEOs in the Fortune 100, that you can count them on one hand. However, there are now more women in employment than ever before. So how can we ensure these women are empowered and supported in their roles? 

Creating real equality in the workplace requires more than just reviewing the gender pay gap. We must create a culture where women are valued members of the team and effective mentoring programmes are a great way to ensure this happens. 

Why mentorship programmes are beneficial for women

The benefits of mentoring are well reported, and have been accepted by organisations worldwide. In fact, almost all Fortune 500 companies now have active mentoring schemes. But when it comes to the professional development of women in the workplace, mentoring can bring with it a whole host of additional benefits, including:

Confident and competent leaders 

When identifying future leaders amongst our workforce, we tend to hone in on the outwardly confident individuals. The ones that stand out, speak up and make sure their voice is heard. However, this confidence does not necessarily translate to competence. If we want to increase the efficiency of our workforce, whilst also increasing gender diversity in our teams, this must stop. But overcoming the habit of favouring confidence over competence is only one half of the battle. We must strive to develop more confident and competent employees. 

Confidence is cited as being one of the key barriers of women obtaining leadership positions. In fact, a recent study showed that men apply for a job or promotion when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women will only apply if they meet 100% of them. This highlights a real need to build confidence in our female employees, and mentoring programmes are a great way to do this.

Opens doors for promotion 

Women are notoriously bad at self-advocating. But studies have shown it is imperative for women to proactively self-advocate in order to advance in their careers. So as HR professionals, we must help the women in our business develop the confidence to self-advocate, but also provide comfortable situations for them to do so. And mentoring is a great circumstance for just that.

Being mentored by somebody in the organisation, who’s likely more senior and has more influence, allows women the opportunity to show their talent and skill set in a safe, comfortable environment. This will allow the mentor to not only encourage the mentee to speak up and self advocate, but allows them to become a champion for the mentee too. This opens doors for new opportunities or promotions for the mentee, whilst also developing their self confidence. 

Changing perceptions

Studies have shown that character traits that are stereotypically feminine, such as sensitivity and concern for others, made someone less likely to be seen as a leader. Conversely, assertion and dominance, which are stereotypical masculine traits, were attributed to strong leadership. However, women actually scored higher than men in most leadership skills. So how can we change this perception in the workplace? 

Although overcoming this problem lies with challenging the unconscious bias in our people, mentoring programmes can offer a strong helping hand. Mentoring enables people to form stronger, wider networks within the workplace. And as such, they are meeting and communicating with people they might not have otherwise. This will enable the success of existing female leaders to be more widely recognised in your organisation. But it will also mean that future female leaders become more visible due to their wider networks, creating more internal champions for these individuals. 

So why aren’t there more women-focused mentoring schemes?

With clear benefits to women mentoring and being mentored, it may leave you wondering why there aren’t more women-focused mentoring schemes in the workplace. And the answer to this question is complicated, but it can be broken down into three categories:

Why do we need women-focused mentoring?

Are we mentoring to change behaviours and enhance skills? Or are we mentoring women to enable them to deal with the working world? And if the latter, then why aren’t we addressing the crux of the problem and improving our workplace culture instead? Diversity in the workplace is not about conformity. It’s about inclusivity and challenging unconscious biases in our workforce, embracing our female leaders for the unique and widely diverse qualities they bring to the organisation. 

What makes a good leader?

Following from the above, we also need to challenge (and change) what the perception of a good leader really is. The Management Advisory Service lists a person’s ethics, knowledge, experience, and communication among the key attributes for a successful leader. However, when we seek out future leaders in our organisation, we often look for the overly confident, outspoken individuals. These skills do not correlate with the skill set of a successful leader. We must challenge this habit and allow our people to be themselves and flourish in their careers – without conforming to these deep-rooted stereotypes.

Too few women in leadership roles

Just 8% of women are in leadership roles, compared to 14% of men. This is a shocking statistic, and is one final reason why women-focussed mentorship schemes do not frequently exist. Simply put, demand for women mentors far outweighs the supply. 

There are two ways organisations can overcome this challenge. The first, and most obvious way is to employ more women in leadership roles. The second, is to ensure more diversity in mentoring relationships. Many mentors suffer with ‘mini-me syndrome’, with 71% mentoring people who are the same race and gender as themselves. This must change if we want to improve equity and inclusion in our organisations. Mentoring schemes are a great way to bring people from different backgrounds together – and this should apply to men mentoring women, and vice versa. 

Should you integrate women-focused mentoring into your organisation?

As we’ve discussed, there are a number of benefits for women-focussed mentorship schemes. They are a great way to support and encourage more junior women to progress in their career, and help them develop the confidence needed to do so. However, this comes with its limitations. If only a quarter of your leadership team are women, but over 50% of your workforce are women wanting to be mentored – you have a logistical problem on your hands. Focus on your culture and use your mentoring schemes as a way to bring people together, and close the diversity gap in your organisation.

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