Thinking about gender diversity? 3 things you need to know about mentorship

The act of mentoring can be traced back to Greek mythology: leaving for war, Ulysses, the King of Ithaca, entrusted the care of his son Telemachus to his faithful advisor, Mentor.

Unfortunately, Mentor failed to keep order over the kingdom during the twenty years that Ulysses was away and the goddess of wisdom, Athena, ultimately was the one that guides Telemachus into the role of leader. Moving into the present, the modern-day discussions of the role of the mentor are relatively new, with the concept and commonly accepted definition emerging in the late 1970’s.

As a researcher of leadership and gender issues, I believe there are three critical things that all women and men need to know about the state of mentorship today…

1. Mentoring women gets them promoted

Women mentored through formal programs are 50% more likely to be promoted compared to women working with mentors they found on their own. That’s right. Fifty percent.

A key element of this finding is the focus on the mentorship being formal, not informal. Many companies are moving from informal mentor programs, which leaves sole responsibility on the mentee, to more structured programs. This takes the pressure off less experienced women who confront more barriers in creating informal mentor relationships than men do. Whether it is on the golf course, out having drinks, watching sports together, or just running into each other in the locker room, women are often excluded from high-level interactions – unfortunately, it is often these informal moments that can improve chances of promotion and success.

To combat the cultural factors limiting women from interacting with male leaders, the organizational focus on formal mentor pairings results in more women gaining the development traditionally afforded their male colleagues.

2. Women are treated differently by their mentors

The female employee’s mentor tends to coach and advise more, while a male’s mentor takes a more active advocate role by trying to help them advance in their career. While this is not a nefarious scheme by men to undermine women, cultural and systemic norms unwittingly impact how women are mentored.

When women lag behind in leadership advancement and equal compensation, it is often because organizations are structured to institutionalize a preference for masculine attributes. Leaders may unwittingly choose women for traditionally female-dominant roles, such as administrative or support roles, without realizing the selection bias, thereby preserving the gender stereotypes.

While there is little chance of undoing all the messages society sends about gender, there are things that can actually lessen the inequality between men and women. A significant step is to recognize and debunk the myths embedded in gender stereotypes and train leaders how to successfully mentor across both genders.

3. Mentorship impacts diversity for all groups, not just women

Mentoring impacts overall diversity, not just gender. Mentor programs studied at over 800 companies demonstrated an increase in diversity, including all seven traditionally discriminated-against groups, which include white women as well as African American, Hispanic, and Asian American men and women.

As a white female researching gender diversity, it is important for me to recognize the issues facing all groups in this conversation. While I write about the challenges facing women, I also have to acknowledge that as a white woman, my experiences are different from a woman of color. Advancements for women don’t always apply to all races, socio-economic levels, or sexual orientation.

When we think about the ethics of diversity, it is important to make sure we are developing all people – and mentorship is strong step in the quest for authentic inclusion.

Final thoughts…

You are just one person – how do you tackle diversity and inclusion? You believe in it, but what can you do?

THIS WEEK: Assess your schedule. How much time you can carve out to mentor someone each month? If the answer is more than 30 minutes, block the time – NOW. Making the time is the first step.

THIS MONTH: Either recommit to a past mentor relationship or seek out someone new to mentor. If you don’t know where to start, talk to HR and find out if there is someone identified as a rising talent who could benefit from your mentorship. Or talk to other folks and ask them for suggestions. I guarantee someone will appreciate the gesture and gain from the experience. And you will too.

THIS YEAR: Now get out there and be a mentor. Make a monthly commitment to your mentee for the next 12 months. Block the time, set the agenda, and don’t short-change the process. Show up every month. You will make a difference in the life of someone else.