Let’s face it -- we spend most of our careers with our gaze firmly fixed upwards. Our professional focus is on climbing the corporate ladder, building our business, and summiting whatever professional peak we’ve put in our sights. We hardly ever pause to look back at those struggling to climb the rungs below us, much less help pull them up to our level.
As much as our successes deserve to be celebrated, we can’t rest on our laurels. Women who achieve leadership positions in business have the experience and influence necessary to help other talented women shatter the glass ceiling. The choice to step up and be a mentor is entirely up to them; however, female leaders will set the foundation for a more innovative and diverse professional landscape by doing so.
Currently, professional women do not have access to the mentorship opportunities that their male colleagues do. According to statistics provided by Lean In, 60% of male managers in the U.S. and 40% in the U.K. are “uncomfortable participating in a common work activity with a woman, such as mentoring, working alone, or socializing together.” When researchers pressed for answers, they found that the managers’ reluctance was due in part to a concern that they would face allegations of impropriety by forging professional relationships with women.
This fear is misplaced -- however, this and other social factors do make it difficult for women to reach the top rungs of their organization’s corporate ladders. Today, women leaders are relatively few and far between. Data gathered by the American Center for Progress reveals that while women constitute 47% of the U.S. labor force, 52.5% of the college-educated workforce, and 51% of professional-level jobs and management roles, female employees are vastly underrepresented in top leadership tiers.
A quick survey of a few prominent working sectors illustrates my point. Consider the legal profession, where female workers hold 45% of associate roles and only 19% of equity partner positions. Look to the medical sector, where women represent 40% of all physicians and surgeons but only 16% of permanent medical school deans. Lastly, consider the financial services landscape, where only 12.5% of CFOs for Fortune 500 companies are female despite women holding 53% of financial management roles and 37% of financial analyst positions.
Despite their qualifications, women today are struggling to establish themselves as leaders. By offering their guidance, those who do make it to the top ranks have the opportunity to create a snowball effect that would boost diversity, broaden female professional networks, and potentially even improve business performance. Mentorship can, too, improve the mentor’s professional performance by helping them formalize their leadership approach and distill their experience into teachable and more readily-understandable lessons.
Here’s what you can do to begin your first foray into mentorship.
Find a Mentee
It’s possible to find a mentee by chance, but waiting for the right person to cross your professional path isn’t particularly efficient. Reach out! Tap your professional network, ask your personal connections, or even join a mentorship program. Be selective when you search; ideally, you want to find someone who you can work well with and can benefit from your particular brand of experience.
Make sure that your expectations align with your mentee’s before you put time into the relationship. This is for both your sakes -- if you spend hours coming up with a detailed development plan only to find out that your mentee doesn’t have the time to execute it, you’re both going to feel frustrated. Sit down and have a heart-to-heart; the only way to have a productive relationship is to ensure that you’re both on the same page.
Invest, But Try to Step Back
Let’s get one point straight -- mentoring demands a lot of emotional and mental work. As one writer for Fast Company describes, “At its best, mentoring is a dynamic, ever-evolving relationship, requiring a substantial emotional investment by you, the mentor, in your mentee’s growth and development. It’s a role powered by large doses of empathy and seeking first to understand at what point your mentee is today.”
If you overly invest in your mentee’s growth or attempt to dictate their direction, you might find yourself hurt or surprised when they reject all or part of your advice. Your fundamental role is to empower, not spoon-feed! Give your mentee space to grow and gently cultivate achievement; invest, but step back.
Mentorship isn’t a luxury for female leaders; it’s an imperative. I hope you step up.