Women In Leadership- Mentorship

Mentorship For Women

In every organization around the globe, at some point in time, conversations about its leadership and how it impacts its people will be had at water coolers, in cubicles, washrooms and boardrooms. If we listen a bit closer, in small pockets of conversations, we will hear women starting to count the number of females on their executive team and on their board of directors. Where are the women?

This is truly mindboggling, particularly when it’s in the company’s interest to have more women on board; research has shown that increased gender diversity in their executive ranks improves the company’s bottom line. A 2015 report on overall diversity by McKinsey & Co. examined 366 public companies across in the U.S., Canada, Latin America, and the U.K. and found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians. Another popular piece of research, conducted in 2007 by diversity consultancy firm Catalyst, found that Fortune 500 companies with at least three female directors have 42% higher return on sales and 53% higher return on equity. The evidence is clear. Companies with the highest representation of women board directors attained significantly higher financial performance, on average, than those with the lowest representation of women board directors.

Despite the benefits of gender diversity for companies, the odds seem to be consistently stacked against women as they pursue senior roles and climb the corporate ladder. Women in the Workplace 2018, the largest comprehensive study of the state of women in corporate U.S.A., revealed that women remained significantly underrepresented at every level. The proverbial “glass ceiling” remains intact for many women. This subtle but detrimental form of discrimination results in women not attaining the opportunities that are “available” to them, despite their qualifications, suitability and best efforts.

The University of the West Indies graduation statistics for 2017 show that of the 4,016 students to receive degrees, 67.5 percent are female, yet this does not translate to a similar leading percentage of women at the senior management and executive level in organizations.

Performance bias helps explain early gaps in hiring and promotions. Research shows that we tend to overestimate men’s performance and underestimate women’s performance. As a result, men are often hired and promoted based on their potential, while women are often hired and promoted based on their track record.

The evidence suggests that more needs to be done to establish a management pipeline of women. Structural changes must be made within organizations to even the playing field. Companies should ensure that women, not only have access to developmental programmes, but the participation is encouraged and supported in a practical manner. Having a policy and programme is useless if there is no meaningful impact on the upward movement of women.

Mentorship has proven to be very valuable in assisting women develop their skills and prepare for more senior roles. In a study by Dr Jennifer Jones Morales of 78 elite leaders in Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and Jamaica, findings revealed the importance of mentorship and giving back. Mentorship was crucially important to the point where it might be said that a lack of mentorship is a barrier to the development of the elite leaders.

The word mentor, “wise advisor,” has its roots in 1750, from Greek Mentor, friend of Odysseus and who was entrusted with the education of Odysseus’ son Telemachus. The mentor therefore is entrusted with the development of the mentee. Mentorship provides two different kinds of support, namely career development and psychosocial development. Mentors can assume the roles of a sponsor, advocate, protector, or a coach to provide support related to career development. They can also be a friend, role model, counsellor.

Mentorship can also assist women build very much needed networks. Building networks seems almost natural for men. It can be proffered that men’s access to vaster networks is a skill that is developed at an early age as boys participate in games and sports that forces them to negotiate and form lasting bonds. A mentor can help you better appreciate who would be beneficial to know and help you map your professional networks in order to maintain an understanding of who can be supportive when and why. A mentor should also be able to help you grow your professional network but making critical introductions to key personnel in your organization and field.

Furthermore, men negotiate differently than women. In their book Women Don’t Ask (2003), Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever remark that while 57 percent of male Carnegie Mellon graduate business students negotiate their starting salaries, only 7 percent of women do so – resulting in male starting salaries 7.6 percent higher than those attained by women.

Why don’t women attempt to negotiate as often as men? Do stereotypical beliefs that men are competitive, win-lose negotiators and women are accommodating, win-win negotiators affect their interactions? Whatever the reality, a mentor who is a senior experienced professional should be able to teach you strategies to hone the skills that help you improve your negotiating methods for a successful outcome. As with any skill, practice is the key to improving.

Mentorship can teach you to be very intentional and specific about your progress in our career. Mentorship forces you to define your projected career path and to articulate your desire for upward mobility. Left unsaid, you may not be considered as a serious contender for a senior position when it becomes available. Beth Ford, the first female C.E.O. of Land O’Lakes, clearly made it known that she wanted to be C.E.O. Mentorship also breeds accountability as mentees learn to take responsibility for their action items.

With all these valuable benefits of mentorship, the next obvious question is how to find a mentor? Historically women have reported a more difficult time finding mentors than men do, which should drive the need to creating mentoring networks aimed specifically at connecting women with mentors. The American Chamber of Commerce of Trinidad and Tobago in collaboration with the Inter-American Development Bank recently launched their second iteration of the Women in Leadership Mentorship Programme. The programme is a six-month programme that seeks to promote gender parity and is offered exclusively to their members. The programme will pair female mentees with senior professionals (both local and international) in the fields of Science, Information Technology, Economics and Occupational Health and Safety.

Mentorship in organizations can be either formal with a structured mentoring relationship, as described above, or informal, which is a usually a naturally occurring relationship based on personality, attributes and similar interests. One study found that women who found mentors through formal programmes were 50 percent more likely to be promoted than women who found mentors on their own. Yet on a personal level, informal mentorship allows you to choose your mentor who is more compatible to you and makes it easier for you to be more open and receptive to career support and counselling.

For informal mentorship, women often seek mentors like themselves, mentors with whom they can relate. Similarly, women mentees are almost always paired with female mentors in formal mentorship programmes. Why are men not equally considered as mentors for women? Probably because of society’s perception and the resultant risk of the relationship being seen as one of a romantic or sexual nature. We must rid ourselves of the notion that women must have a female mentor. Consistently pairing women with other women may be a grave mistake. The numbers tell us that men hold the majority of the senior roles in an organization. Women seeking mentors and administrators of formal mentorship programmes should not ignore the wealth of experience, knowledge and vast network of the right kind that a senior male mentor brings to the mentorship relationship. That should be the key criteria for selection of a mentor, not gender. Your relationship with your mentor may lead to assignments and promotions, which in essence is the objective of getting a mentor in the first place.

To truly get ahead, women need to acquire a sponsor, a powerfully positioned champion, who has the power to push them through the system. Your sponsor will advocate for you to get a prized assignment or promotion, mentioning your name in meetings, actively pushing you up the ladder. Women seem to gravitate to role models or someone they admire rather than someone with the power to act on their behalf. Identify that person at the senior leadership level, male or female, who has respect in the organization and has the power to make things happen for you.

In the end, women must take ownership of their career. Intentionality, therefore, is key. Utilize mentorship and sponsorship to develop much needed skills and confidence to take on senior leadership roles. Step out of the box that is defined by your job description and learn all you can. Promote your strengths as well as your achievements, understand your gaps and work towards closing them. It was Ursula Burns, former C.E.O. of Xerox, the first black woman CEO to head a Fortune 500 company, who said “believe there are no limitations, no barrier to your success. … you will be empowered and you will achieve”.

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