Mentoring is important – but can it break down biases?

This year’s International Women’s Day urges us to “break down prejudice”. How can business leaders help eradicate inequalities by mentoring their colleagues?

Bias is a small word with significant and pernicious implications for individuals, society and, indeed, businesses. It is the enemy of equality and – however unconscious – it can prevent us from giving our fellow human beings the opportunities they need to succeed.

So, with its laudable rallying cry to “break prejudice”, this year’s International Women’s Day, March 8, is a timely reminder of our collective responsibility to crush discrimination, break down stereotypes and eradicate inequalities. It’s hard work, but we all have to do it, especially those of us in the privileged position of leading a company and, increasingly, of mentoring its employees.

There is still a long way to go, especially in historically male-dominated fields like science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), where women still make up only 28% of the workforce. ‘artwork.[1] However, Women in Tech’s global researchÒ shows the potential of mentoring programs to restore balance, with 89% of participants feeling empowered by the experience and 97% finding it valuable.[2]

From mentee to mentor

Fortunately, mentoring is something we see more and more of in business in general and STEM in particular. This can happen as part of a structured program or an ad hoc arrangement, over several months or in a one-off conversation.

Early in my career, working for another leading tech company, and for the unusually egalitarian era, I was fortunate to benefit from the wisdom of two female business leaders and mentors. It was really helpful to bounce ideas from these well-connected and well-respected people, one on a regular basis and even long after I left the company.

On a less conscious level, being mentored by women in leadership positions also taught me from the start that gender has no bearing on business acumen and, in hindsight, helped me to have a broader and more complete perspective, which was an advantage for my own career development. .

Now the boot, so to speak, is on the other foot. But how can offering advice myself as a mentor help break down gender bias and inequality?

Prevent preconceptions and encourage empathy

In a sense, mentoring programs are usually pre-built to combat bias. You’re unlikely to mentor someone who reports directly to you, so you won’t have any preconceptions about their abilities. Without this mental baggage, or any vested interest in the individual’s role, you can be a bit broader and more objective in your thinking and advice.

While this doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of unconscious gender bias, it helps eliminate any business bias and allows you to take mentees at face value and see their skills in a clearer light. After all, it’s about where they might be going, rather than where they’ve been.

Still, women in tech companies often don’t go as far as they could. Globally, only 16% of managers in the tech industry are women, while women make up around 18% of board members and a tiny 3% of CEOs.[3]

I believe that mentorship can help bridge the gender gap by allowing us to better understand ourselves and put ourselves in each other’s shoes. I’ve always made it a point to have one-on-one conversations across our organization with an equal number of men and women. But it’s only through recent experiences as a mentor that I think I’ve truly appreciated the challenges women in business can face.

I am talking in particular about the many conversations that have taken place in the pandemic, on Teams or Zoom. While I had the luxury of calling from a (relatively) quiet home office, a female executive often had to juggle our conversation with a surly child or an off-screen emergency.

This shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but it certainly broke down some personal biases and highlighted the need for more acceptance, understanding and flexible work practices.

Harvest results

In many ways, the pandemic itself was a great leveler, as everyone was dealing with many of the same issues, but not always to the same degree. One of the main ways mentoring can level the playing field is to make it less about people and more about outcomes.

When I say results, I’m not just talking about the result, but also how you go about achieving it. You shouldn’t always have to smash things or bang your head to get things done, and you need everyone involved to feel good about what you’ve accomplished. Should you take people with you – or leave a trail of bodies? It’s a no-brainer, every time.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter who the mentee is. Regardless of gender, background, experience, etc., they can be either a high-maintenance individual or a low-maintenance individual from a leadership perspective. The most valuable team a leader can have is one that can achieve its goals with a little support, a lot of confidence, and as little noise as possible.

Mentoring provides support and instills confidence, but it does not guide mentees through every step or help them navigate every difficult decision or conflict. This is no doubt why the hierarchical superiors are there.

Instead, mentoring should help mentees see the big picture: how they fit into an organization and the personal developments they need to make to reach the next level. In the long run, this is much more valuable and will be essential in encouraging more women to take on the top positions.

Then there is the visibility that a mentorship can bring. When someone asks me to fill a role, I immediately flip through my mental list of mentees for potential candidates. This is another way for mentoring to break down barriers and open up more opportunities for female executives.

And of course, we also need more female mentors. The good news is that 89% of mentees go on to mentor others and, as a result, become six times more likely to be promoted. What better reason to encourage as many women as possible to participate in mentoring programs?[4]

What makes a mentor?

Regardless of your gender, the skills and qualities you need as a mentor are much the same as those you would develop and apply in any business role. If you’re looking to get the most out of mentoring – and support the push for equality – I would make the following four recommendations:

1. Make sure you are the right mentor. Establish the mentee’s expectations from the start and ask yourself if you can really help them.

2. Listen carefully and listen well. Ask a few direct questions to start, then sit back and listen to what the mentee has to say. That way, you’re in the best position to help them find their own answers and come out of the experience with a better perspective on their life and career.

3. Think about the value you can add. There needs to be a two-way flow of information between mentor and mentee, so where can you help? Maybe it’s the way the mentee presents himself, or maybe his ambition is a bit ahead of his abilities. Anything you suggest should help them take the next step in the right direction.

4. Go with the flow. There’s no point in having a mentor unless you want to progress in some way, but it doesn’t always have to be upwards or even within your company. Over time, it may become clear that the mentee wants to completely change industries. Again, you’re there to help them find their way and make useful connections.

For me, personally, the best part of being a mentor is seeing the impact the process can have. It is simply a pleasure to watch people grow and realize their potential, as well as helping them achieve their business goals. The hope is that together you can correct the gender imbalances that persist in STEM businesses.

In articles on[5]and university studies[6] of this problem, the lack of mentoring comes up again and again as a fundamental cause of inequality and therefore a factor of prejudice. Why let that pernicious little word hold back progress, when the right support can make a big positive difference.

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