Women represent 53% of the workforce, yet only 35% are in senior leadership positions. Female employees make less than their male counterparts and are less likely to get promoted. Furthermore, only 8.2% of leadership positions at Fortune 500 companies are held by women. It is a sad state of affairs — so what can we as women do about it?
There is no magic bullet that will instantly create equality. However, as leaders, one way we can tangibly enact change is to prioritize mentorship. Mentoring is an essential aspect of career growth, and yet 63% of women have never had formal mentors. To make matters worse, men are far less likely to mentor women. All of those who hold positions in leadership — both men and women — have a responsibility to mentor the next generation of female leaders.
Growth and Development
The mentor/mentee relationship is an essential element of our growth and development — and not just for the mentee. When you mentor someone, it can (and should) be a give-and-take relationship, with both parties offering fresh perspectives and opportunities for growth.
Mentees may share insight into how their generation thinks and feels, providing new solutions to old problems. They may also have unique skills that can bolster your work. One of my mentees is a fantastic writer, and I often turn to her when I am stuck in my process, asking, “How would you talk about this? What gets you out of a writing rut?” In eliciting the insights of my mentees, I learn while also building the mentee’s confidence in a safe arena.
The mentee/mentor relationship also combines the learned wisdom of experience with the freshness and excitement of youth. My company recently received a request for a proposal that our team believed we had a low chance of winning. However, one of my mentees felt enthusiastic about the project and was so optimistic about our ability to get it that we decided to apply, believing it would provide an excellent learning opportunity at the very least, and we ended up winning the proposal. And while it doesn’t always work out this way, this instance reiterated that it’s often worth going after something even when the odds are low.
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More Than a Teacher
Mentors often come in with the best of intentions, hoping to help their mentees avoid the mistakes they’ve made. However, mentors have to let their mentees take risks. Failure is one of the best ways to learn. If you try to eliminate all possibilities of failure and discomfort for your mentees, it is stifling at best and infantilizing at worst. You’re not a best friend — you’re there to make them better, which sometimes means pushing mentees out of their comfort zone.
Furthermore, mentorship encapsulates more than simply teaching mentees your way of doing things. You aren’t trying to make your mentee a better version of yourself, but rather the best version of themselves while opening up your network to them in order to help foster connections that could lead to future growth opportunities. When I was starting out, I had a mentor who was a board member of a non-profit. She invited me to join a sub-committee, which led to many valuable experiences and showed me the importance of giving back. Every mentee is different, and your mentorship will vary depending on what each mentee hopes to achieve (one person may want a path to the C-suite while another wants to hone their craft).
Mentorship is allowed to go beyond work topics. As a mentor, you are there to help your mentee. For example, a few months ago, one of my mentees was clearly in physical pain during a Zoom meeting. Eventually, she told me she had a herniated disk, which is something I’ve experienced myself. I told her about the services I used that helped me during my recovery and reminded her that self-care is important — you can’t perform at your best without it.
If the mentee feels comfortable, your conversations can go beyond the office, including topics from starting a family, buying a home, relationships and more — how we navigate these life events makes us who we are and impacts our performance at work. And while there is a delicate balance to strike here around boundaries, it can be valuable to remain open and vulnerable with your mentee, sharing your struggles and triumphs equally.
Finally, given the intimate nature of some of these conversations, you must keep your own counsel. Your conversations with your mentees are trusted and private, and you will significantly damage your relationship if you do not honor that trust.
Carrying the Burden
I had a mentor who took me under her wing at a company I worked for in my 20s. When I received an important promotion, I invited her to dinner to thank her for her guidance. To my surprise, she declined, explaining, “The best gift you could give me is to remember this moment, and to offer the same mentorship to someone else when you’re in my position.”
Years later, I mentored a young woman who started as a contractor and later became a full-time employee. When she was promoted, she too asked to take me to dinner to thank me. I repeated the exact words my mentor had said to me all those years before. When mentors pass along the lessons they have learned, they create a multi-generational impact — it is the world’s only positive pyramid scheme.
I take on any woman who asks me to be a mentor because I want to boost as many women as possible. It’s time-consuming but important as we need more women in leadership. While it’s still on women leaders to put in the extra effort for things to truly change, we don’t need to go it entirely alone. We should also identify male allies who will mentor women and offer equal access. The responsibility falls on all of us, not just women.
Turning Over the Mic
As a woman in leadership, my goal is to drive for more equality in the executive ranks. The more women in leadership, the better, and I know I am not the only voice calling for such changes.
So now, I want to hear from all of you. If you’re a young woman in business, what type of support are you hoping for? If you’re a woman in a leadership position, what are your tips for mentorship? Are there programs or initiatives you’ve started that you’d like to partner on or help in promoting? And if you’re a man who wants to be an ally, what would you like to know about how you can help?
And finally, what else can everyone do to uplift the next generation of female leaders?