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Ellie Cerin

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Women and mentoring: The corporate counter-attack?


Mentoring is it an important tool for empowering women but can it help smash the glass ceiling? Ellie Cerin investigates.

It's a fact that women are not equal when it comes to scoring the top jobs. Cue the modern equivalent Suffragettes.  In fact a recent report from Cranfield School of Management has revealed a worrying trend in the number of women taking directorships in the top 100 FTSE companies with only 113 out of a possible 131 women holding directorship roles to an equivalent 834 out of 947 for men.
What's more, the number of companies with female directors is also down, according to the 2009 Female FTSE report, to 15 from 16. While not a huge decline, it does imply that the rise of the female leader has stagnated, and this trend is reflected across all sectors, not just finance where it has been prevalent historically. There are currently 192 members of the United Nations. Twenty-three have got female leaders. There are three female monarchs; eight female presidents; and seven female prime ministers. This alone implies that women are not getting through to the top positions.
But in the battle to lead, could mentoring be a way of empowering women and can role models offer a suitable way to encourage young women to aspire to be leaders?

Can women make better mentors?

The gender debate is often a contentious subject, with no one wanting to openly admit or even allude that women are still behind when it comes to achieving high-status, high-paying jobs, but the fact remains, it will take some brave and honest thinking and it will certainly take some innovation to turn this tide.
A recent press release issued by the world’s first social networking site for informal business mentoring,, claimed that more small businesses and entrepreneurs in the UK are going online to seek business advice and mentoring. Furthermore, they say that 50% more women use the facility to send mentoring messages than men, and that women forge more lasting mentoring relationships. 
So is it fair to say that women are more open to or aware of the benefits of learning from their peers? “When I was moving into a management role, I benefited greatly from having a mentor,” explains Leah Williams head of communications for the Women’s Resource Centre. “We had a very open, honest relationship that helped build my confidence and my skills.”
"I do not know a successful woman who has not had some type of mentoring relationship in her past."                 Suzanne Doyle-Morris
In her book: ‘Beyond the Boys’ Club,’ Suzanne Doyle-Morris recognises the existence of these arguably outdated ideals of the ‘Boys’ Club’ and in a cleverly written account of her own admiration for successful and high-achieving women offers some great advice about mentoring and how useful it is as a tool.  But what constitutes the mentoring relationship?
"A mentor is someone more senior than them [the mentee] professionally, who can help guide the way and give career advice”, writes Doyle-Morris. Whereas Ruth Spellman, CEO of the CMI, asserts that: “Mentoring should not be the bringing together of a trainer and a trainee, or a line management arrangement where seniority and rank come into play”. One thing that they all agree on is that successful mentoring is a significant tool for inspiration and development.
“There are so many wise and successful women out there and it’s vital that we make the most of their expertise,” says Williams. "That one-on-one attention can help women so much, particularly if they lack confidence to take on leadership roles or have faced discouragement from other colleagues or society at large.”
“I do not know a successful woman who has not had some type of mentoring relationship in her past... many of the best mentoring relationships seem to occur spontaneously... proactive successful women seek out mentors for themselves,” claims Doyle-Morris in her opening few paragraphs of the chapter dedicated to ‘Mentoring’. Spellman goes further saying that role models are important for individuals no matter what their gender, race or religion, and are of great importance with regard to women and their career ambitions.

Breaking the ‘old boys’ network’

But is the interpretation of the ‘role model’ as ‘mentor’ cause for confusion or are they interchangeable concepts?  Either way, the research points to there being definite limitations to a woman’s progression up the career ladder, whether they are perceived or real. It certainly seems that the ‘Boys’ Club’ in alive and kicking.

In fact women in corporate environments still have a lot to prove in terms of their performance and commitment to their career and many male bosses will openly admit that when hiring for a job where a woman had come out as the best candidate, they still had concerns about whether that woman would soon be considering starting a family. This has devastating affects for women in the workplace – this is a hurdle they face before they even get hired.

"There are so many wise and successful women out there and it’s vital that we make the most of their expertise."     Leah Williams, Women's Resource Centre
“Women are often told that, if they are struggling to make progress or to juggle their work with their other commitments, that it is their failure, and that they ‘just aren’t cut out for it’. Whereas in actual fact, women often face similar barriers, and talking it through with another woman can make them realise that they’re not alone and also to strategise to find ways to overcome those barriers.”
Undoubtedly, the power of mentoring for any woman keen to carve a corporate career for herself cannot be underestimated. “Mentoring, when used as part of the development process has advantages for everyone,” says Spellman. “It is a useful tool for all those involved and forward-thinking organisations are recognising this potential.”
Clearly women have more to gain from a mentoring scheme, Spellman concludes that while it is not just women who will benefit from it, it is women who are seizing the opportunity – but perhaps that is because they know they need all the assistance they can get out there in the male-dominated corporate world.


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