No matter what field you work in, ask around and you’ll find that most industry leaders made their way to the top in part due to the support and encouragement of business mentors. And while supporting your employees and helping them develop as business leaders through proper training is the mark of a great manager, a mentoring relationship is something else. Mentoring is a much more personal connection, often with people you don’t work with directly, though whom you usually share a field with.
Mentoring relationships are especially important for women looking to become leaders in the business world. It’s clear from the statistics – women currently only make up 4.6% of CEOs in S&P 500 companies and that number is even lower among the top 100 Silicon Valley corporations. These numbers aren’t for lack of trying, however, but rather due to structural biases against women in leadership. Central to changing these numbers is a mentality of women supporting women, and formal mentoring relationships are a great way to do this.
Why Women Mentors Matter
One reason mentoring relationships between women are so important has to do with social expectations and traditional hierarchies. Women generally feel a greater sense of equality speaking with other women, even those in positions of power, because women professionals likely faced similar struggles at some point. As one business woman pointed out, this makes women trying to find their way more comfortable asking questions. At the same time, their mentors are more likely to share their own past mistakes as a learning opportunity, while men often gloss over women’s concerns.
Mentoring And Second Generation Bias
Second generation bias refers to the sense that the previous generation of women’s success means that all goals surrounding women’s advancement have been met and that employment bias no longer exists. This is commonly seen in tokenizing those women who have succeeded in business – Susan Itzkowitz is President of Marc Fisher Footwear, or more commonly Sheryl Sandberg is COO of Facebook – so there must not be a problem. One woman’s success doesn’t erase structural inequalities.
Mentoring relationships have a role to play in countering this kind of workplace bias, even if these relationships alone can’t erase them. While mentoring sometimes demands slowing down a little bit to help boost those around you, failing to do so will leave the women already climbing towards the top alone in the boardroom. Male executives spend time building relationships with their male employees – think about the time honored practice of golf outings – and women need to do the same. The most valuable advice is often passed on in these settings.
Lift, Climb, Lift
Ultimately mentoring relationships between women rely on the practice of lifting as we climb. That means sharing knowledge, passing along opportunities that we think are right for other women, and being a listening ear. In the absence of quota systems ensuring greater equality in the business world, women need to focus on lifting each other up and always refrain from tearing each other down – the business world does enough of that already.