By Galia Barhava-Monteith

What is mentoring, and why is it so important for women?

The number of times I have been asked these questions easily goes into the hundreds.  I have always tried to answer them thoughtfully, in a way that reflected my own experience and the trends coming out of the academic literature.

I usually explained how mentoring provides psychological and emotional support as well as perspective, networking opportunities and potential exposure.  Indeed, many corporates have invested heavily in mentoring programmes, both generally, and for women specifically. I have often advocated for, and presented on, the convincing research that documents the potentially large benefits for women of having a mentor inside their organisation who is prepared to sponsor them into high visibility assignments and secondments.

Less head, more heart

All of these intellectually based arguments are very worthwhile reasons why mentoring is such an important way to advance women’s careers.   But I never really stopped to consider the even more important emotional reasons.  And by that I mean that I never really stopped to think about what it felt like for the mentee. Well, this all changed last week, during our training session for mentors ahead of the Professionelle group mentoring programme launch!

For this pilot programme, Jayne Muller and I shoulder tapped nine amazing women who we thought would make great mentors.  At the launch, we asked our mentor volunteers what made them agree to take part when we had shoulder tapped them.  And it was when one of them,  who has been informally mentored for many years, told the group her reason for doing it, that the light bulb just fired in my head.  This high-achieving woman told us that she agreed to become a mentor because during her early years, there was a more senior woman who believed in her when she didn’t believe in herself.  And now, like the other amazing women in the room, she wanted to give that feeling back.

Someone in your corner

In essence, what all these women said was that their own experience of being mentored was really about having someone there in their corner, explaining the rules, and believing in them. Over the week since our training took place, I have come to realise that this succinct description is in fact the emotional essence of mentoring:

…believing in someone so that they can believe in themselves.

I have further come to realise that the reason it is particularly important for women, is because we are constantly surrounded by images and messages about the things we can’t do. NZGM ad From an ad for a GM role with a white middle class man in a suit on it – at left – to constant pressures about how to be the perfect mum (not a stressed one), and look great (but not too great as it may hurt our career).  Unconscious bias by its very nature is something we come to internalise. We forget that it is not only something others have towards us, it is also something we have towards ourselves, AND towards other women.

Feelings

As someone who coaches, mentors and presents, I have learned from experience that the real impact I have on people is not driven so much by what I say, but by how I make people feel, for better and for worse.  If you think about it, how much do you remember about the content from a lecture, workshop or talk you went to three months ago?   Now ask yourself about that same event, how did it make you feel? Is it easier for you to recall your feelings than the content?

We constantly underestimate the ‘feeling’ aspect of all our interactions with others and overestimate the intellectual content.  We think about what we said and how smart it was, but we hardly ever think about how we make others feel when we are at a meeting, or give advice. Feelings are as important as thoughts and content, and sometimes more so, especially when it comes to tackling the unconscious bias.  This is because it is UNCONSCIOUS and therefore happens in the realm of feeling, not necessarily thinking.

Cheerleaders

I am sure that many of you have told yourselves very rationally, and frequently, why you can’t do something.  I have no doubt that you have been quick to point out to yourselves the mistakes you’ve made, that you’ve beaten up yourselves over and over again about them, and that you are very able to point out the many ways in which something could go wrong.  None of us needs other people taking the wind out of our sails, because we are world class at doing it all by ourselves!

What we all need are cheerleaders, women around us who believe in us.  I also believe that in this day and age, younger women need it more than anyone else.  If a woman is hard-working, willing to go the extra mile, driven and motivated, she doesn’t need us to tell her what could go wrong or point out the many risks along way.  She needs us to believe in her, be her cheerleaders and be there to support her when things go wrong (as they inevitably do), so that she can bounce back up and keep going.

We are surrounded by messages of the things we can’t do. So now, as mentors, friends and supporters of women, let’s focus on the things we can do.  Let’s focus on being cheerleaders and believing in one another!

 

Acknowledgement

Galia BarHava-Monteith is a co-founder of Professionelle.  She is a dedicated supporter of women, and together with Jayne Muller, provides the professional development to our mentors.  Galia tries to be a cheer leader for women (and some good men), is a business advisor and is doing a PhD on whole person approach to chronic illness.

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