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The role of mentorship in reframing the gender imbalance at senior level

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The role of mentorship in reframing the gender imbalance at senior level.

The gender imbalance in senior leadership and executive boards echoes the seismic gender disparity embedded in the workplace. However, through government and company reports, tangible changes are now being seen. There has been a holistic narrowing of the gender pay gap, and greater awareness and more significant initiatives have been created towards returning to the workplace following maternity leave and menopause amongst others. There has evidently been an improvement in the number of women seen in board-level roles too. Indeed, the UK is now second in international rankings for women’s representation on boards at FTSE 100 level, with nearly 40% of positions now held by women, compared with just 12.5% 10 years ago.[1] Nevertheless, the practical implications of these numerical ‘improvements’ do not necessarily correlate to a practical response. Doyin Atewologun recently cited a 2019 survey that highlighted how female Executive Directors in the UK are in their roles for an average of 3.3 years, compared to the 6.6 years for their male counterparts, thus suggesting women are appointed for symbolic, rather than substantive reasons at FTSE 100 companies specifically.[2] Moreso, the arbitrary categorisation diminishes the further disparities in the representation of BAME women in senior positions.

In my work, I have been able to partner with a number of senior HR professionals, often at the heart of initiatives and programmes helping to set a new norm of women aspiring to, sitting on and maintaining a seat at the highest tables and drive a real impact. What has struck me over the last year has been the regularity in which they have endorsed mentorships as the most successful initiative in encouraging and sustaining greater diversity amongst senior professionals, and notably, how a pragmatic approach is needed to any mentorship programme for it to deliver true and robust impact.

Mentorship, the experience or guidance from another, can be seen and approached in a number of ways and at any level of seniority. A mentor is there to act as a visible showcase of possibility, an added support network and as guidance through their personal experiences and lessons they have learned. It has consistently been seen as one of the most effective initiatives in accelerating the career of women in leadership.[3] Mentorship can be structured programmes led by group activities, or it can be heavily personalised and self-driven.

Executive Coach Laura Simpson believes it is imperative that initiatives and pathways are embedded into development plans at all levels. “I do not believe females suddenly drop out of the pipeline. If the role models and sponsorship aren’t there from when a female finds herself at that crucial mid-level point, it is very difficult for her to see aspiring to more as a viable option. Moreover, bearing in mind the number of sizeable sacrifices that have to be made by anyone in senior or executive positions, with the burden of caring responsibilities still overwhelmingly falling on women, females really need to see that this effort is ‘worthwhile’”.Mentorship can offer not only the encouragement that leadership is possible, but helps also to demonstrate first-hand the impacts and possible value-add senior positions can represent. Laura’s perspective echoes the understanding that a mentor is a visible representation of not only what is possible, but the possibilities at each level of your career. Therefore, having this support from junior level and having that consistent presence of how to get to the next step in your career is imperative. Indeed, 29% of women believe their gender gets in the way of career advancement.[4] Alongside changing the language of job descriptions, the confidence and support provided through mentoring can help encourage more women to apply for that career-progressing role.

Mentorship programmes can be presented as structured forums participated from the top down. For instance, Louise Roberts (Chief People Officer) spoke of Women InMoment a scheme sponsored by senior women in the business where they shared personal stories that provided greater engagement around the programme and highlighted – in a similar vein to those echoed by Laura – the need for visibility and transparency that all women can be successful leaders in a business no matter their circumstance. It was interesting to note that graduate populations seemed to connect with the personalisation of such women, especially as the ‘scheme’ was promoted by the business holistically rather than being presented as a HR initiative to be dismissed as a check-box policy. Laura highlighted a near-identical Women’s Leadership Forum during her time at an established law firm, an initiative designed to be a safe space for females to share challenges and advice as to how to get ahead. It seems then that often a structured mentorship programme can help the practical implementation of mentorship and earns stronger engagement when paired with the personalisation of shared stories that resonate with mentees. Mentor initiatives, although the personalisation understood in these examples suggests the programmes are successful as long as they are not too transactional – successful mentors in this space must be open to sharing elements of the personal to truly engage female and diverse populations. Programmes which convey a genuine investment from leaders across the business aides the engagement in the programmes.

The timing and implementation of any mentorship programme can be crucial to its success. Launching the programmes during high profile times such as National Women’s Day seemingly provides a vital kickstart and appetite and, as one Chief People Officer stated, ensures the scheme is “more palatable to the business as a whole, limiting the perception of any mentorship programme as simply a HR tick box”. If we view this in context to more general examples of initiatives implemented to encourage female leadership, understanding the programme as a business-driven scheme is more likely to win buy-in from stakeholders down to graduates. Indeed, only a third (32 per cent) of employees in a recent survey by People Management said they thought there was commercial value in understanding more about the menopause in their specific job role or department, yet 88% of women wished their workplace was better set up for the menopause.[5]

The effectiveness of mentoring is regularly lauded, however it is the pragmatism and nuances around mentorships, often ignored for sweeping statements, which consistently facilitate success. The relationship between mentors and mentees can and should mould for every scenario and the needs and approach of each individual. Having said this, whilst the insights I have gained throughout this process have largely varied, all HR professionals I spoke with shared identical sentiments on one aspect which can provide a neat conclusion. All mentorship programmes, however they are structured or positioned, are only successful if mentees are playing a consistent and active role in the process.

[1] Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, Gov.UK, 02/22.

[2] Male Directors Stay Roles Twice Long Women Report , Frances Churchill, ‘Male Directors Stay in Roles Twice as Long as Women’, - People Management, 07/22.

[3] 5 Ways to Increase Women Leadership and Gender Equality - Sarah Jones, HR News, 16/05/22.

[4] blog: human-resources how-hr-can-create-more-leadership-opportunities-for-women - Megan McNeill, 09/11/2021.

[5] majority-women-wish-workplace-better-set-menopause-study-finds - Jasmine Urquhart, Majority of Women wish there workplace was better set up for menopause, 08/22.