Mentorship can overcome the barriers to leadership positions for women. Even with mentors, however, women, especially those with children, face continued resistance in personal development, included limited access to the networking opportunities so vital to a leadership career.
As documented by statistics of women in the workplace, entrenched gender discrimination — perhaps more subtle than in the past but just as damaging — continue to impede the careers of women. Although women make up nearly half of the workforce, only a paltry 14% of senior executive positions at Fortune 500 companies are held by women. The figures are not any better in Europe, where only 2.5% of European company chairpersons are women.
Why do women continue to face challenges climbing up the corporate ladder? Previous studies have pointed to the lack of mentors and networks as a major reason. As one study stated, “Female managers can miss out on global appointments because they lack mentors, role models, sponsorship, or access to appropriate networks — all of which are commonly available to their male counterparts.”
One of the key benefits of mentors is that they signal to managers and leaders that the mentored woman is legitimate, capable and fit for professional roles. Mentors also help women navigate within the organization in different ways, notably through coaching and sponsorship; challenging assignments; protection from office politics and opponents; and increased visibility in front of key players in the organization and industry.
On a more personal level, mentors also offer psychosocial support in the form of role modelling, acceptance and confirmation, friendship, and counselling. The result is an increased sense of self-worth and competence.
A new study shows, however, that even with mentors, women — and more particularly women with dependents — continue to find access to career-building networks difficult.
The study confirmed that women with mentors are more successful than women who do not have mentors. However, when the study broke down the results between women with dependents and women without dependents, it showed that women with dependents, even if they have mentors, face an even greater struggle to build networks than women without dependents. Although it’s better to have a mentor, a mentor can only go so far in helping their mentees overcome “network challenges” — the cultural and psychological hurdles that undermine efforts to benefit from networks. The network challenges examined in the study included: attitudes toward gender and gender roles, family, and religion; social hierarchy; politics; race; class; and cultural identity. The study focused especially on attitudes toward gender, family and social hierarchy.
In short, the best mentor cannot even the playing field for women with dependents. It’s important to note that the women who were surveyed in the study all had graduate degrees from top universities. Often the work/family conflicts that managers assumed simply did not exist. Therein lies one of the greatest challenges to women: automatic assumptions of conflict whether or not they exist.
Mentorship and networking programs are important building blocks to overcoming the barriers against women.
Many corporations have recognized the challenge — not just for women but for a number of other groups. In response, they have created officially sponsored racial, ethnic-background or gender-based affinity groups, also called networking groups or resource groups, that help their members with networking and professional development. One of the examples given by the authors of the study is the Chubb’s Group of Insurance Companies, which has an active Women’s Development Council Mentoring Program. According to an article on NBCNews.com, Chubb’s mentoring program “has helped boost the number of women senior vice presidents at Chubb to 23 percent last year from 16 percent in 2001, and women holding the executive vice president title jumped to 17 percent from zero over the same period.”
Another company included on the authors’ list of corporate mentorship programs is GM, which has a number of “Employee Resource Groups,” including its Affinity Group for Women (AGW), which, according to GM’s website “aims to assist women in managing their carers and professional development… and creating leadership opportunities for women to excel. AGW offers a mentoring program, leadership development seminars and regular networking opportunities.”
While Employee Resource Groups play a great role in helping to develop employees who might be disadvantaged in some way, the other side of the coin is better diversity training for non-minority managers and executives who might let prejudices and assumptions hinder the network development opportunities for certain categories of people in the firm.
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