Mentoring Programs for Women to Overcome Workplace Challenges - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #774

Mentoring Programs for Women to Overcome Workplace Challenges

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Women mentors and mentees both benefit from their involvement in mentoring programs, acquiring a range of cognitive, skill-based, and affective-related learning — and to a lesser extent social networking skills.


Although mentoring is often cited as one of the paths for women to break down the barriers that hamper promotion opportunities and career success, what exactly can women learn through mentoring relationships and how does this make a difference for them in the workplace? This question is at the heart of a qualitative study on mentoring for women conducted by University of Wolverhampton’s Assoc Prof. Jenni Jones. Focusing on a particularly male-dominated domain, the study is based on interviews with 32 mentees and 36 mentors and four focus groups, across the beginning, middle and end phases of the women’s only mentoring program of a police force in central England.. 

The study examines the perceived learning acquired by mentees and mentors in the four learning domains developed by Profs. Connie Wanberg, Sarah Hezlett of the University of Minnesota and Prof. Elizabeth Welsh of the University of St. Thomas. These four learning domains are:

  • Cognitive learning — related to knowledge, including technical knowledge and organizational knowledge. 
  • Skill-based learning — which ranges from technical skills to personal skills, such as time management
  • Affective-related learning — learning related to emotions, feelings, personal attitudes, including self-confidence 
  • Social networking learning — learning how to develop and maintain connections 

Jones’ analysis of the interviews with mentees and mentors revealed the following results related to how mentoring impacts learning in the four domains:

Affective-related learning was the type of learning most mentioned in the interviews by mentees and mentors. For both mentors and mentees, being involved in mentoring helped their self-confidence, feelings of empowerment and positivity. Mentoring also increased the motivation of mentees, while mentors perceived their self-awareness had grown.

Cognitive learning was mentioned by mentees as their second most important outcome from mentoring whereas for mentors, cognitive learning lagged slightly behind skill-based learning. Once again there was some overlap in the specific learning from this domain. Both mentees and mentors felt they gained a wider view of the organization through the mentoring relationship. Mentees also felt they gained practical advice from their more experienced mentors, together with information about promotional opportunities and support towards better understanding the promotional process; mentors learned more about the mentees and effective mentoring in general

As noted above, skill-based learning was the second-most-important source of learning for the mentors; whereas learning new skills followed affective-related and cognitive learning for the mentees. Not surprisingly, the skills learned by the two groups through the mentoring sessions were different. 

  • Mentors learned skills such as questioning, listening, empathy, support, challenge and planning.  
  • Mentees learned some helpful skills to demonstrate at promotional interviews, including skills related to communication, coping with stress, work-life balance and reflection.

Finally, social network learning was minimal for both mentees and mentors. Mentees gained some additional networks when being signposted by their mentors towards helpful others and making new connections. The takeaway for mentors was an increased awareness of the amount of helpful networks they had to share and the usefulness to others, of them.  

The study also looked at how the intensity of learning in each of the domains evolved during the mentoring relationship. According to the study, affective-related learning soared steadily as the relationship progressed over time. Cognitive and skill-based learning fluctuated during the program, while social networking remained low throughout. In addition, both mentees and mentors were asked about the difference being involved in mentoring had made for them back in the workplace. Interestingly, both parties shared many examples of how their increased knowledge, skills, affective related learning and their new connections had helped them in their job. For example, increased synergy between departments, increased accountability and increased productivity.


While this study confirms the benefit of mentoring for mentees, it also reveals the huge benefit and learning for mentors as well. The impact of the mentoring experience on affective-related learning is particularly noteworthy. Both mentees and mentors gained in self-confidence — often cited as one reason women fail to move up — and given the upward curve of affective-related learning over time, this self-confidence as well as positivity increased as trust was developed over time within the mentoring sessions. Thus, an ongoing mentoring program will be more impactful for women in the longer term than a short-term training session.

Mentoring also had a major impact in the cognitive and skills learning domains. For example, gaining wider organizational insights can help women who might have been hampered in the past by lack of knowledge of opportunities in their company. In addition, developing the skills needed for promotional boards and beyond is also something that women do not always have access too. It is also well known that women do not have access to the same networks that men do inside and outside the workplace, so again mentoring can help to share and develop wider networks to get the necessary support to move on and up.  

Mentoring is not necessarily the answer to all of the challenges women face in the workplace. A blended approach might be most effective for career-building learning and development. When a one-way short-term acquisition of skills is required, a training program can do the job. However, a formal mentoring program offers both parties involved the chance to enhance their learning across all of the different learning domains, giving them a better chance to advance and succeed.



  Jenni JonesÂ’ profile at University of Wolverhampton


How Can Mentoring Support Women in a Male-Dominated Workplace? A Case Study of the UK Police Force. Jenni Jones. Palgrave Communications (January 2017).

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Idea conceived

January 23, 2017

Idea posted

Sep 2020
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