Many successful executives will credit a mentor; an adviser, a teacher, someone who kept them engaged while they advanced their careers. Maybe even someone who opened doors as they learned the ropes. This is especially true for women. Today, forward-thinking companies realize that mentorship helps close the management gender gap. The most successful way for a company which is committed to diversity, to be sure that women receive the benefits of mentorship is to make formal programs available.
In the immortal words of Joseph Heller, it's a Catch 22. Women need mentorship, yet it isn't easy for them to secure a mentor informally. Informal mentorship happens much more naturally with men. Perhaps it is because male executives (who still far outnumber women) see a younger version of themselves (an extension of self) in the new hire who is then nurtured, groomed and taken along to golf or attend a sporting event with the big clients.
Typically, looking in from the outside, women approach the limited number of senior, more experienced women in their organization and ask, "Will you mentor me?" As Sheryl Sandberg points out in her book, Lean In, this is unlikely to garner the intended result, in part, due to the scale of the request. Instead, she suggests asking for business advice on a specific problem and to allow the relationship to evolve naturally.
I always recommend that women approach finding a mentor like dating. You wouldn't walk up to someone and ask them to be your boyfriend without spending time with them first to see if there was chemistry. Mentorship is the same. Offer to take a prospective mentor for coffee. Glean as much information as possible to determine if you are a good fit and could meet again.
The ideal scenario is for women to have more than one mentor. They can achieve this by employing their own individual initiative to find a mentor and joining a company that makes a formal mentoring program available to them. These formal programs can be internal, or the company can support them externally. What is important is that they are made available, and remember quality counts.
Those who have well-matched and connected mentors can expect to enjoy more promotions because they help women to raise their visibility and showcase their skills. Research shows that (by a ratio of almost three to two) women who find mentors through formal programs receive more promotions than those who attain mentors on their own.
Until the day that the number of women executives more closely equals the number of men, we can't assume that women, like men, will readily find mentors informally. Committed to helping more women reach the decision-making table I founded the Womentorship Program at the Edwards School of Business, University of Saskatchewan. Each year we match junior women protégés with more experienced Womentors for one-on-one sessions, professional development and networking events.
Supported by Areva Resources Canada from the beginning, it gives me great satisfaction to see women graduate from our program walking taller and with more confidence. Unfortunately, not all companies are so forward thinking and many of the women in our program must pay their own tuition because of the lack of support from their employers. Some are even forced to use vacation time to attend our sessions.
Corporations often have a budget for women's leadership training, yet these companies are ignoring the one element that would provide substantial returns. Research shows that when mentoring is coupled with training, women are more apt to stay and advance in the workforce.
Another significant result was cited by Iris Bohnet in her book Gender Equality by Design. Noticing that women were less likely to be promoted to tenure in economics than in other fields, the Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession started a mentoring program and coupled it with training. The results were monitored and it was found that those who participated in the program put out more publications and received more approvals for their grant applications than those who didn't.
In corporate cultures where the mentoring of women is encouraged we also see a reduction of unconscious bias or prejudice which held in our subconscious and unbeknownst to us, shapes our decisions each day. After mentoring I've personally observed men who initially had difficulty concealing their biased belief that working mothers were unsuited for management, later become their largest supporters. Suddenly, through a combination of the sharing of their own knowledge and the increased contact, the value of their female protégé became clearer.
As Dobbin and Kalev state in the Harvard Business Review article "Why Diversity Programs Fail," mentorship reduces unconscious bias as managers believe that "anyone that I sponsor must be deserving." The article cites the fact that after five years of using a mentoring program 80 per cent of mentees at Coca-Cola had climbed at least one rung up the proverbial ladder. This increased the company's diversity in management and it now boasts a woman CFO, Kathy Waller.
Mentorship is not designed to rescue women and is certainly not meant as a substitute for them creating their own careers. Ultimately, we all have to take responsibility for our own success. However, besides helping to stem the leaky pipeline of women available to join the ranks of executives, mentorship increases the effectiveness of women's leadership training and reduces the unconscious bias that limits their opportunities.
The bottom line is that in comparison to men who dominate the identity group of management in the corporate world, women as members of a minority are at a disadvantage. A mentor plays many important developmental roles including those of motivator, coach, champion and consultant to offset this disadvantage. Women's leadership training combined with a formal mentorship program can help close the gender gap and reduce unconscious bias, ensuring that both women and companies are the beneficiaries.
Follow HuffPost Canada Blogs on Facebook
MORE ON HUFFPOST:
Stela Stefanova is the principal of a highly competitive technical high school in Sofia, Bulgaria. She has a Ph.D. in digital signal processing and has authored many scientific papers in Bulgarian and international journals. As an instructor in the school’s rigorous networking technology program, Stella has transformed a Soviet-era high school into a technical education powerhouse. Her students regularly take home top honors at national and international networking competitions. “Our students go on to work in ICT at big companies as programmers and networking specialists,” she says. “They go into good careers and take leading positions.” Read her story here.
Dr. Akila Sarirete worked as a software engineer in Canada and the United States before joining the faculty at Effat University in Saudi Arabia as a lecturer and IT supervisor in 2002. In 2004, the university adopted the Cisco Networking Academy curriculum to expand employment options for women and help advance their careers. Under the leadership of Dr. Sarirete, the program has become a training ground for the next generation of women leaders in Saudi Arabia. She has watched the job market change, with more companies considering women for positions traditionally held by men. Read her story here.
Soso Luningo (third from left) grew up in a shack in a small village in South Africa. Through intelligence and hard work, she earned a scholarship to CIDA City Campus in Johannesburg, a nonprofit institution of higher education serving students from historically disadvantaged backgrounds. In 2003 CIDA established an ICT Academy, which has become a pipeline for graduates interested in technology and for businesses seeking skilled workers. After earning her bachelor’s degree and Cisco CCNA certification, Soso became the youngest IT technician and only woman on the IT staff at Queens Casino in Queenstown. Within three months, she was promoted to network administrator and team manager. With her salary, Soso was able to build a new home for herself and her parents in the Eastern Cape village where she grew up. Today she works as a trainer at the CIDA ICT Academy, guiding students down the same path she traveled to a prosperous, fulfilling future. Read her story here.
Babalwa Dube started as a volunteer at the Tembisa Community Knowledge Center (CKC) in South Africa and eventually became the manager and owner of a CKC in Ivory Park, a former township with a population of 100,000 black South Africans, eight schools, two health clinics, and one police station. Close to 100 adults attend classes at Ivory Park and many more regularly use its technology services. Babalwa provides support, encouragement, and a model of success, especially for girls and women. She started a women's club discussion group to motivate and empower women, and organized a Winter Camp for environment and leadership studies at the nearby Sukerbos Nature Reserve. “I was always interested in technology,” she said. “I played with boys, connecting TVs and radios, wanting to learn more. Most of the people have never touched a computer. They are scared to touch the mouse. When they start, you see the warmth in their eyes.” Read her story here.
Courtney Beard joined the U.S. Air Force in 2007. She served one year in Iraq, overseeing Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) Operations for United States Forces Iraq (USF-I). While there, she completed her associate’s degree in intelligence studies and technology. After separating from the Air Force, she was accepted to the Warrior to Cyber Warrior program, a six-month cyber security program that prepares veterans for the CompTIA Security + certification and helps them improve their resumes and practice interviewing techniques. In October 2012, Courtney was hired at Cisco to provide support for customers in the public sector. “IT is a great field to be in,” she says. “There are many jobs open now and I think the amount of IT jobs will going to continue to grow over time. IT skills are challenging to acquire, but they are very valuable to have in the long run.” Read her story here.
Nada Krkobabic lost her IT job with a real estate company when the market crashed in 2008. She discovered the F_Email project, a competitive IT training program at the University of Belgrade in Serbia that combines technical and soft skills training in a small group setting, preparing women to bring their strengths and talents to the country's developing IT sector. She is now an instructor with the program and an IT administrator with a local mobile communications company. She gets to know F_Email project participants and recommends them to employers. “That personal connection is important … a network of real people connecting with each other," Nada says. "We make friends and make business opportunities.” Read her story here.
vcaknott:Dr. Elizabeth Croft is the Associate Dean of Professional Development and Education of the Faculty of Applied Science at the University of British Columbia and the NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering for the BC - Yukon Region. She has been essential in changing the culture surrounding women in engineering, in specific in the Undergraduate experience. She has been an amazing mentor to the students at UBC, helping inspire them to make a difference both in their personal development as well as their impact on society. Undergraduate engineering programs have been struggling to increase the number of women entering their programs above 20 percent but Dr. Croft has made it her goal to change this. How? By changing the whole culture. To learn about all the work she is accomplishing be sure to check out the website for her Chair: http://wwest.mech.ubc.ca/
tonyasims:My personal inspirations in STEM include: Marissa Mayer, Ursula Burns, Grace Hooper & Mae Jemison. Being able to read about their journeys has helped tremendously in my 7 year technology career as a software engineer.
Follow Betty Ann Heggie on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@bettyannheggie