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A Perspective on Women and Mentoring

By Galia BarHava-Monteith

There is no question that women are under-represented in senior positions in New Zealand.

In analysis we conducted at Professionelle, we were able to demonstrate that the pay gap and the rate of women’s participation in senior positions in the private sector have both worsened in the new millennium. But why?

Many perspectives have been put forward as to why women, three decades on from the feminist revolution, are still not making it to the top in greater numbers. International research and our recent online survey into “what’s stopping women rising to the top?” demonstrate that one of the consistent explanations put forward is the lack of mentoring of women in organisations.

Why Mentoring is a Powerful Tool

A good mentor can act as a guide, a sounding board, a powerful advocate and a thought partner. A good mentor should challenge your thinking and stretch your expectations of yourself and what you think you can possibly achieve. A great mentor will grow with you and will stay with you throughout your career, introducing you to her/his network and will take a keen ongoing interest in your development.

Whose responsibility is it to ensure that talented and promising women and men have access to good mentors? I believe organisations definitely have a role to play in encouraging the development of successful mentoring relationships.

For example, organisations that are serious about developing their talented men and women can formally facilitate mentoring relationships. They can engineer cross-functional interactions and put in place incentives for senior managers/professionals to become mentors.

The importance of mentoring is widely acknowledged in the US. Most Fortune 500 companies see mentoring as an important employee development tool, with 71% of them having mentoring programs (according to T. A. Scandura, a management professor and dean of the graduate school at the University of Miami).

Various academic studies since the 1980s have demonstrated the many benefits of mentoring. According to Scandura, employees who have mentors earn more money, are better socialised into the organisation and are more productive. Research also demonstrates that mentees experience less stress and get promoted more rapidly.

Mentoring for Women

Organisations that believe they need to specially target their talented women, whether it’s because they are leaving, or that there aren’t many of them at the top or simply because it’s the ‘right’ thing to do, can shoulder tap rising female stars and ensure they have great mentors in place. Of all the strategies put forward to help combat the ongoing state of affairs where women don’t make it to the top, mentoring is probably the lowest hanging fruit.

In fact, a recent article from Wharton University’s online knowledge system points to research that shows how much easier it is for young men to get mentored by senior men than it is for young women to do the same. Since men continue to hold most of the senior positions in organisations, the implications for women are obvious.

The Role of the Mentee in the Mentoring Process

But here’s the thing, the research and literature indicate that mentoring cannot be overly prescriptive as this will detract from the trust and the ‘flow’ of the relationship, thus making it less effective.

Indeed, according to Wharton management professor Katherine Klein, informal mentoring relationships are often more typical and more beneficial to both mentor and mentees. According to Klein, it is particularly important for mentees to be proactive in trying to establish a relationship with a senior person and to be energetic in keeping the relationship going. She uses the phrase “irresistible protégé” to describe these employees.

“Research shows that protégés influence the amount of mentoring they receive,” according to Klein. “You’re more likely to get mentored if you’re talented, have an outgoing personality and are career- and goal-oriented. Once a mentor sees that you’re eager, the more likely it is the mentor will want to spend the time and social capital on you, introduce you to the right people, and so on.”

It has certainly been my observation over many years that a good mentoring relationship is a two way process. Mentees who put themselves out there as they seek good mentors tend to find them. Mentees who take an active role in engaging and maintaining the ongoing relationship with their mentors throughout their careers are more likely to be introduced to their mentors’ extensive networks and gain access to more opportunities. Mentors benefit not only from watching their protégés’ growth but also from access to their mentees’ growing networks and influence.

Perhaps one of the reasons both international research and women themselves cite lack of mentoring as one of the key barriers to ‘getting to the top’ is because women are reluctant to take such an active role in the mentoring relationship. Members of our online community tell us that they can feel excluded from the informal networks where the ‘organic’ mentoring relationships have historically developed. Women may also find it too ‘in your face’ or ‘self promoting’ to be so openly proactive. They may, in addition, shy away from taking other people’s time and feel that they are imposing. And perhaps, with a lack of role models who’ve had great mentors to learn from, they may simply not see it as a viable or valuable approach.

Two Way Street

Mentoring is a two-way relationship; as in any relationship, both partners need to take an active approach. Women and men who wish to have a great mentor should seek that person out, initiate the relationship and continually work to maintain it. Organisations can help by removing obstacles, enabling cross-functional interactions and actively promoting the concept in their organisations. Ultimately, however, it is up to us.

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