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Why Informal Mentoring Works Best for Women

By Galia Barhava-Monteith

Mentoring has long been a popular topic at Professionelle. One of the reasons is that it is a key career-enhancing strategy that women can control and seek out for themselves.

Career Enhancement for Women

There is a wealth of research on the topic, both academic and business focused. This is because mentoring is particularly important for women in their careers. In case you’re wondering why, there are three reasons:

  1. Women start work with a disadvantage as they are faced with more career development issues than men. Women across all English speaking countries report similar barriers for career development. These include lack of access to high profile, stretching opportunities, working in male-dominated environments and hitting career dead-ends when, because of life circumstances, women opt for part-time roles. Our own research mirrors these consistent findings.
  2. A woman’s career is a labyrinth – not a ladder. Women face different career challenges than men do, often from very early on in their careers. A skilled and knowledgeable mentor can play a vital role in helping women negotiate the labyrinth of their career and leadership roles.
  3. Lack of political awareness and understanding of the value of social capital. Across the board, women tend to undervalue the importance of building relationships in the workplace as a way to progress. They tend to place all their eggs in the basket of ‘working hard to deliver great results’ which they see as the path to recognition and promotion. Moreover, research suggests that young men find it easier to network when they join organisations and therefore are more likely to meet potential mentors.

A Short Personal Story

I was approached by a young man with whom I worked years ago. He wanted me to help him work his way through a crossroad in his career. I was more than happy to help and we had some good conversations until he was happy with his choices. He approached a few people he respected to give him perspective – exactly what I advise many women (and myself!) to do. When I reflected on the experience, it struck me that NOT ONE younger woman with whom I have ever worked has ever done the same. And yes, I’ve worked with plenty!

Professionelle Research

When we conducted an online survey on the importance of mentoring, we found that a staggering 100% of respondents believed that mentors play, or can play, an important role in woman’s careers. The kind of work arrangements our members were in made no difference to their view of the importance of mentors.

Organisations are Responding

That mentoring is important for the career advancement of women is hardly disputed. What we’ve been seeing is that many organisations and companies are responding by designing in-house mentoring programmes. While their efforts are to be applauded, the reality is that research, as well as anecdotal experiences, suggest that informal mentoring is significantly more effective than formal mentoring relationships.

Formal versus Informal Mentoring Relationships

The key difference between formal and informal mentoring relationships is that informal mentoring relationships develop spontaneously whereas formal mentoring relationships develop with organisational assistance or intervention, usually through the process of assigning mentors to mentees or matching them up.

Many organisations assume that informal and formal mentoring are much the same and the benefits are identical. But research over the last 10-15 years shows that this isn’t the case.

In a USA study of 257 male and 352 female mentees, it was found that informal mentoring relationships:

  • Provided more career development opportunities in the form of sponsoring, challenging assignments, protection from adverse forces within the organisation and more exposure.
  • Were the most satisfying for mentees
  • Resulted in greater compensation for mentees – in other words, they ended up earning more.
  • Most importantly, there was no difference in compensation and promotion rates between formally mentored employees and non-mentored employees. Only those mentees who had informal mentoring relationships ended up earning more and being promoted more often.

Shared Values

When you think about it, it does make sense: when mentors and mentees identify each other informally they do so based on mutual interests, values, likes and dislikes etc. They are also more likely to feel ‘authentic ‘ about the relationship and more motivated to invest in it. Research and Professionelle’s experience suggests that the key is that when an alignment of personal values is present the mentoring relationship (be it formal or informal) is most likely to succeed.

I experienced the difference between formal and informal mentors at the beginning of my career. I worked for an organisation which had a formal mentoring programme and I was assigned a mentor. The relationship didn’t work very well; our values, interests, professional and personal aspirations did not match. The mentor was assigned simply because he was senior to me.

Luckily, I struck up a wonderful and very good mentoring relationship (still going to this day) with another manager in the office. The unfortunate thing was that when I tried to formalise the relationship, my assigned mentor felt betrayed. Even though my peers in other organisations thought that having a mentoring programme was a great thing, I realised that a formal mentoring relationship can sometimes end up worse for the mentees than no mentoring relationship at all.

The research mirrors this personal experience, with a study of the effects of formal versus informal mentoring relationships on men and women’s careers concluding that formal mentoring relationships may be less effective for women mentees. Compared with women mentees who had informal mentors, women with formal mentors reported much less coaching, role modelling, friendships, and exposure to social networks.

Workplace Programmes

If you are in HR or thinking of establishing a mentoring programme in your organisation, we strongly suggest that you take note of this finding and create a programme which enables the development of informal relationships. Where possible, formal mentoring programmes should mimic the development of informal relationships. For example, the organisation can identify pools of potential mentors and menses and train the two groups with the relevant skills but allow them to develop their own mentoring relationships, perhaps in loosely facilitated meetings.

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