Only six percent of Fortune 500 companies have a female CEO, according to research by DDI World. The lack of representation is appalling, but unfortunately, not surprising to many.
Despite some significant gains over the past several decades, women still face many challenges in the workplace, including:
- Pay inequity - women still get paid less than men for doing the same job.
- Advancement barriers - female executives are still few and far between. Many women hold supportive or administrative roles in their companies.
- Family-life imbalance - women with families face tougher hurdles to succeed at work compared to men with families.
There are overlapping reasons for this. They span political, socio-economic, and cultural realms. This article won’t go into those reasons as we’re not experts, but we do want to highlight what we have a lot of experience in: mentorship.
Why is female mentorship important in the workplace?
Together provides a platform for companies large and small to run employee mentorship programs. We’ve seen a number of mentoring programs specifically for women. Why? Because having a mentor accelerates your career.
Consider these studies that speak to the benefits of mentorship:
- Employees with mentors are promoted five times more often than their non-mentored peers.
- 87 percent of employees with mentors or that mentor others feel empowered by their relationships and attribute greater confidence to the experience.
- In one study, retention and promotion rates for women participating in mentoring programs increased from 15 percent to 38 percent.
Providing women with mentors is a meaningful way to help them advance their careers. Mentors provide women with guidance on navigating their careers, advice on skill development, and ongoing support. Despite this, the same researchers at DDI World found that only 37 percent of women have had a mentor in their careers. Additionally, only 56 percent of companies have formal mentoring programs.
Mentorship plays a critical role in female advancement in the workplace. One caveat, however, is that it's not always possible to match every high talent women with another high talent female leader. That's because there may not be equal representation in leadership. Michelle Ferguson, author of Women Mentoring Women suggests the following:
The pandemic’s impact on women in the workplace
The pandemic had a disproportionate impact on women in the workplace. Over 800,000 women have left their jobs. That is four times the number of men who’ve quit. And those that are left behind feel the burden much more.
What women need are support networks. These can be found in employee resource groups for women or formal mentoring programs. These communities or programs give women opportunities to build connections and find support.
One example is The Forum, a Canadian-based non-profit that provides female entrepreneurs with mentors. Since its founding in 2001, The Forum has connected over 2000 entrepreneurs with career-changing mentors to help them build their businesses. They saw the need for female business owners to have mentors, and they built a community to fill it.
This is just one example of many. During the pandemic, many other companies have made mentorship a key part of their diversity, equity, and inclusivity initiatives.
How do women benefit from mentorship?
Mentorships hold many benefits for participants and the organizations that launch them. Here are some of the ways that women specifically benefit from mentorship.
Statistics show that many organizations lack substantial female representation in leadership roles. Workplace mentoring programs are able to provide female mentors who act as role models for other women in the company.
“Seeing women in leadership positions where they are respected, their insights are valued, and their ability to influence/create real impact on a team or company signals to others, like myself, that it's possible.” - Evelyn Ly, Humi
These mentors are able to guide and advise these other women. They’re also able to inspire them to achieve more. Seeing a leader in your organization that you can identify with gives you confidence that you too can advance to that level.
“The biggest benefit of having a career mentor (no matter the gender) is that it helps you imagine what a brighter, more successful future could look like for you. I grew up in a low-income family with very few professional female role models—and the disparity in workplace representation between men and women meant that I struggled to find examples of women like me who were achieving the things I wanted to achieve.” - Lizzy Burnam, User Interviews
Mentorships also allow women to find support and encouragement in their workplace. In a workplace where women are a minority, they may feel isolated. Developing a relationship with other women in business can help them feel more connected.
“Having someone in one's corner creates an immense psychological safety for women at the workplace.” - Anett Tarnokova, Butter
Women can also benefit by building networks of key and influential people to get to know other successful leaders through their mentors. These connections can provide women with the confidence to pursue new opportunities.
“Mentors have acted as my ‘anchors’ throughout my career by setting an example for me and giving me the courage to try things that otherwise might’ve seemed a bit too audacious and wildly out of my reach.” - Lizzy Burnam, User Interviews
Toolkits for career growth
When women mentor women, they can develop leadership skills as well as practical abilities to advocate for themselves. Likewise, female mentors can train and equip younger women with skills like negotiating for a raise. They can accelerate their development and provide what some describe as shortcuts to success.
“By avoiding mistakes, taking shortcuts to success, and gaining advantages in general. That's significant because we, as women, have a different starting point than men have. So, I believe that any path can help us to have more efficiency in our professional lives.” - Andresa Araujo, Andresa writes
They can also offer advice on navigating their careers and finding a work-life balance. Women who have been mentored describe the experience and the skills they acquired as essential toolkits for their professional lives.
“The greatest benefit to having career mentors — because I don't believe women should have just one — is to develop a toolkit from people who have "been there, done that," so you can develop your strengths across important areas of your career.” - Lani Assaf, Elpha
Should male leaders mentor women?
The short answer is yes. Men should be encouraged to mentor women in the workplace because the lack of female representation means there will be a shortage of qualified mentors if they don’t.
“Some of my most impactful mentors have been male. In organizations where there were little to no women in leadership positions, men were my only option.” - Lizzy Burnam, User Interviews
Together conducted a survey of 50+ leading North American companies and found that having a mentor from the same background was important to some mentees, but not all.
- 41 percent of employees from diversity groups think it’s important that a mentor comes from the same group.
- 28 percent of employees from diversity groups think it’s unimportant that a mentor comes from the same group.
These stats show that whether or not a women wants a male mentor depends on their personal preferences. One isn’t always better than the other.
It’s important to acknowledge that some men may feel uncomfortable mentoring women because they don’t want their words or behaviours to be misinterpreted. But rather than avoid mentoring women, men and employers can find ways around these concerns, for example, group mentoring so that leaders aren’t alone with an employee of the opposite gender.
The unfortunate reality is that if men refuse to mentor women, it will prolong gender equality in the workplace.
Instead, men should be encouraged to think of mentoring women as an opportunity to get a new perspective. In other words, it can make the male mentor a better leader as they will learn how to navigate a diverse workplace.
“Male leaders may not often get to see or understand what things look like from women's point of view. That perspective can be helpful for them and may help them rethink their beliefs about things like pay equity, the nuances of the responsibilities that women face, and so on." - Grace Lau, Dialpad
Do women in the workplace need a mentor or a sponsor?
The answer depends on what the woman wants to achieve through the relationship. With a mentor, the focus is more on growth and learning. It revolves around skill development and goal-setting.
In contrast, a sponsor is more focused on career advancement. Ideally, a woman will experience both mentorship and sponsorship during her career.
“I think women should have both, but sponsors can be especially powerful. A sponsor is more like a direct advocate who can help you find and land new opportunities. But a mentor — someone closer to your current level — can be very powerful in getting you to the next career step. I also think mentors can be more hands-on in helping you develop the skills you're seeking to improve.” - Lani Assaf, Elpha
Should companies start formal mentoring programs to support non-male employees?
Yes. Organizations that build workplace mentoring programs can improve the skillset of their employees, enhance engagement, improve productivity and reduce turnover rates.
It’s a win-win for the employees and the employer.
Moreover, a formal workplace mentoring program can help break the ice for more reserved employees and may find it challenging to identify a mentor on their own. But that does not mean that all mentorships need to fall under the umbrella of your corporate mentoring program.
Employees should also be encouraged to approach someone they feel they want to learn from at your organization.
“A formal mentoring program is always the best door opener to start conversations for two reasons: 1) human nature - some might naturally seek out a mentor due to their extroversion and drive, others may need a "little push". In order for a workplace to reach their female workforce, having a formal program may increase the chances of success. And 2) chemistry is incredibly important in any human relationship. The benefit of a formal program is that women have an immediate conversation starter with someone tenured at the workplace.” - Anett Tarnokova, Butter
Women are still a minority in the workforce, but mentorships can help them learn the skills they need to break down the barriers. In addition, company leaders have a lot to gain from mentoring women, including stronger leadership skills.
Formal mentoring programs that are geared towards improving inclusivity can build a more cohesive and collaborative workplace. And that is why Together does what it does.