How the mentors of today can build the female leaders of tomorrow
By LOUISA DEVADASON
If I hadn’t had mentors, I wouldn’t be here today. I’m a product of great mentoring, great coaching. . . Coaches or mentors are very important. They could be anyone – your husband, other family members, or your boss.
—Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo
While women have always been contributing members of their community, they have only been legally part of the workforce for the last 60 odd years.
Prior to the 1960s, women largely assisted their family businesses or took clerical and other lower-level positions in companies.
Over the years, many countries have worked to engage women in the labour market and deal with issues like wage inequality, harassment and discrimination.
However, as men had a significant head start in workforce leadership, the highest positions of management, chief executive officers (CEOs) and directors are still predominantly occupied by males in almost every society.
This means that many up-and-coming male professionals have access to a host of mentors of their gender who have journeyed along career paths they aspire to, whereas women struggle to find female mentors who have “been there and done that” in terms of walking a path they would like to follow.
Aside from these abovementioned issues, the limitations of the glass ceiling and the struggle to make education more accessible to girls contribute to a situation where women, even in developed economies, still shoulder a larger portion of parenting, homemaking and other social or familial obligations.
The need for mentors
While women make up nearly half of the workforce today, only 14% of senior executive positions at Fortune 500 companies are held by women. Studies have found that besides the lack of childcare facilities and support for mothers with dependents, most women struggle to climb the corporate ladder due to a lack of suitable mentors and networks.
As stated in a study by Margaret Linehan and Hugh Scullion, “Female managers can miss out on global appointments because they lack mentors, role models, sponsorship, or access to appropriate networks – all of which are commonly available to their male counterparts.”
A crucial benefit of having a credible, respected mentor is that it legitimises the mentored individuals’ capabilities and professional prowess in the eyes of managers and leaders alike.
The wisdom and experiences shared by a mentor can also be pivotal to helping a protégé successfully navigate the complexities of corporate terrain.
Knowing that an advocate within the organisation or industry has your back can provide a tremendous boost of confidence if you are a woman manoeuvring through tedious office politics further weighed down by gender imbalance. In addition, coaching and sponsorship increases one’s visibility to notable members of her organisation and industry.
What’s more, a mentor who can empathise and is aware of the unique gender differences in career management also offers valuable psychosocial support by being a role model and counsel to her mentees.
For any woman – or any a human being, for that matter – this acceptance and affirmation results in an elevated sense of competence as well as self-worth.
Putting the “men” in mentor
Currently, however, men are still dominating positions that enable senior professionals to be influential mentors. In truth, many of these male professionals could mentor women just as well as they mentor men if they had a forum to discuss and understand the gender-related issues faced by their female protégés.
A man’s ability to be an effective mentor to women depends greatly on the extent to which they understand the challenges that women disproportionately face when managing their careers.
A mentor who can adapt their mentorship approach to address the gender-related needs and concerns of their mentees will not only enhance their mentees’ career trajectories, but also contribute to women staying in that field. This in turn helps to extend the positive influence and legacy of the mentor.
So how do we go about developing better mentoring relationships between the sexes?
1. Prioritise listening skills over quick-fixes
Contrary to popular belief, neuroscience has found that women are not more emotional than men.
In fact, when compared, women were better at reframing their negative emotions by utilising positivity while men were more inclined to control, or even mute their feelings.
In short, our gender difference lies not in our level of emotionality, but rather in the form of our emotional expression. Women are more likely to express their feelings through words or even tears while men tend to bottle it up.
These differences can lead to misunderstandings and miscommunication, as well as relational breakdown, if a mentor is not attuned to his or her female mentees’ neurological inclination to be more analytical of her emotions and therefore more openly expressive of them.
The first step in addressing this is for the mentor to exercise his listening skills, aiming to empathise rather than to diagnose or instruct his mentee towards what he sees as an easy solution.
This habit also serves to develop the mentor’s interpersonal skills, open doors to larger networks and help them win access to insider details of their company, which in turn, enables them to be more effective leaders.
2. Manage your mentor-mentee relationship openly and transparently
One of the main reason many male mentors do not take women under their wing is the fear of engaging in a close professional relationship with a woman and how this might be perceived by others.
While people’s openness to platonic male-female friendships and professional relationships is a work in progress, a mentor can start to mitigate some of these concerns by engaging two female mentees at the same time and encourage them to mentor each other even as he mentors them.
Additionally, conduct your catch-up discussions in the open to avoid generating grist for the rumour mill. Maintaining transparency and openness is the best way to keep your mentorship professional and effective.
Other avenues for women to seek mentors
Malaysia has taken great strides to start programmes that empower women to take the next big step in their career and also find mentors to support their journey.
MaGIC (Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre), SME Corporation Malaysia, and the Mentoring Women in Business Programme – implemented through a collaboration among the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, Qualcomm Wireless Reach, Maxis and the Foundation for Women’s Education and Vocational Training – are some resources available to women seeking mentors or support in their professional career.
Informed and inclusive mentor and mentorship programmes for female professionals are pivotal to equitable global and community development.
As female mentees enjoy a more successful career path with timely promotions, better salaries, improved job satisfaction and commitment to the organisation, they ultimately develop a stronger sense of self-worth that benefits their families and, ultimately, the next generation.
Organisations that create and encourage mentorship opportunities for women also help position themselves for further success in the future.
Mentoring relationships promote more collaboration and creativity within the organisation. At the end of the day, this makes everyone more self-aware and attuned to one another – widening and enriching our interpersonal skills and professional synergies.
Louisa is currently pursuing a Masters of Development Practice overseas, majoring in community development. She is an editorial associate and freelance writer with Leaderonomics. An extrovert who loves the outdoors; she thinks change is exciting and should be embraced. Chat with her by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.