27 September 2023

Mentor as anything: How women mentoring women can change the world

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Liz Elting* says female mentorship can break the cycle that continues to exclude women from professional growth and success.

If there’s one theme to my writing here at Forbes, it’s the necessity of women to band together if we want to achieve equality in the workplace and beyond.

The shameful display in Washington, DC, last month, as Brett Kavanaugh was rushed to confirmation for the US Supreme Court despite Christine Blasey Ford’s credible accusations against him, only further underlines the fact that, all things being equal, men act to benefit themselves.

As a rule, men benefit from the current power structures in place, and with no incentive to help dismantle them, will continue to prop them up and act in ways that benefit themselves.

It’d be tragic if it weren’t commonplace, but it underscores a critical truth: if they won’t help us, we have to help ourselves.

That fact applies to another topic I’m passionate about as well: mentorship.

Men in positions of power, as a rule, simply don’t offer women mentorship opportunities at anywhere near the numbers they offer them to other men.

There are numerous reasons for this — implicit bias, misguided fear of harassment accusations, especially in the current climate — but it comes down to the simple reality that women aren’t being given access to the traditional routes toward advancement, which only exacerbates the ongoing dearth of women in leadership roles as well as the creation and perpetuation of boys’ club cultures.

Critical to becoming a leader in a corporate setting are the social access and business opportunities that come with one-to-one mentorship.

Which means women in positions of power need to utilise that power to mentor and lift up other women.

With that in mind, let’s look at the ways mentorship can open doors for women in the workplace — and how transformative that can be.

It creates professional networks

The truth is that women in leadership positions need to make a point of mentoring other women, because, more often than not, nobody else is going to.

Not only does it help the person you’re mentoring grow, excel, and advance more effectively, but done right, it can form the foundation of the kind of valuable professional network that will ultimately benefit all women within an organisation.

I’ve talked before about the importance of professional networks as well as the many reasons women are excluded from them.

But mentorship can directly tackle that issue.

Mentorship relationships, especially if a woman leader is mentoring multiple women (and encouraging those women to eventually do the same), can serve as the kernel of that kind of close-knit professional network, with all the benefits it can offer: better projects, access to leadership, advocacy at higher levels, and mutual support.

Far too many women work in isolation; it’s untenable and unnecessary.

Mentorship can help break that dynamic at the core.

It opens doors to leadership

Mentorship is critical to successful careers for young professionals, and that’s true no matter who you are.

A great mentor can offer critical insight into how an organisation runs and what leadership looks for before it promotes.

A great mentor can push you to seek out advancement and help make sure you have the tools to succeed.

And, critically, a great mentor will tell you when to take on leadership opportunities and seek promotion with confidence, while being your advocate when you do so.

And that confidence, that ambition, is something women are too often discouraged from when we’re young.

Mentors can help reignite that fire and push women to achieve more than we’ve been told we’re destined for.

The end result of more women going after leadership roles is more women in leadership roles, and that’s an unequivocally good thing, with exponentially positive effects.

It creates more opportunities for women

There’s an interesting cumulative effect to building the foundations for group professional advancement through mentorship: it grows itself organically over time.

While not every mentored woman will go on to managerial or executive roles in an organisation, enough of them will; and they’ll take on their own mentees, and the cycle will continue, building like a snowball until one day, we’ll look around and realise we’re everywhere.

I’m not exaggerating; mentorship creates the opportunities that opens more doors to more women, which just keeps the ball rolling.

It seems like such a small action, but it has an outsized effect; the woman you’re mentoring will apply those same lessons, that same attitude, across her entire career, creating a global effect over time.

That’s not a small thing, and it’s the sort of grassroots, boots-on-the-ground actions that we can start doing right now, without needing permission, or boardroom action, or lawsuits, or policy changes.

It opens the door to entrepreneurship to more women

All of the above is assuming the impact of mentorship is confined within a single organisation, but of course it isn’t; successful, ambitious people are more likely than others to strike out on their own, and if more women meet those criteria, we’ll see a net increase of women-owned businesses.

And while there are systemic barriers outside the workplace facing women-owned businesses, particularly access to capital, women taking control of their financial futures (and assuming the requisite social power that comes from business ownership) not only increases employment opportunities, but, as these businesses grow and succeed, can dramatically increase their ability to exert positive change on even larger scales.

Business owners enter and influence political life at every level, control greater economic resources, and can impact their communities on a scale few others can.

And with women currently exercising that control over a mere 4.8 per cent of Fortune 500 companies, there’s a huge gap to be bridged.

It may seem like I’m drawing big conclusions, but I don’t believe the power of mentorship can be overstated here.

So much of what keeps women on the economic margins are little things that mentorship can tackle: lack of access to leadership roles, lack of access to professional networks, lack of support, lack of independence.

Mentorship can break the cycle that continues to exclude women from professional growth and success, and that will have an outsized impact no matter what.

* Liz Elting is the founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation. She tweets at @LizElting and her website is lizelting.com.

This article first appeared at www.forbes.com.

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