Can we spare a moment and think: from where did Ada Lovelace, born in 1815, find inspiration to become the first computer programmer? And what inspired Sheryl Sandberg to become the woman of power that she is today? Well, both women – undisputed leaders in their own domain – (and there are several other examples) have had their mentors who set them on their unlikely career paths.
With the growing realization world over that gender diverse teams perform better financially and also women leaders can foster a better environment and organizational culture, several organizations are seen to have implemented training programs and other diversity initiatives. While most of these measures haven’t moved the needle on improving diversity numbers, women who have effective mentors — not only at work but also in schools and universities—are more likely to climb up the tech career ladder faster. Several research reports point to the fact that mentoring can be an effective way to boost diversity.
Mentoring boosts growth and diversity
In a Harvard Business Review article, titled: “Why Diversity Programs Fail,” by Frank Dobbin, professor of sociology at Harvard University and Alexandra Kalev, associate professor at Tel Aviv University, the authors cite mentoring as an effective way to empower managers, and more importantly it has a huge impact on diversity.
“During this relationship, the mentors themselves become engaged, committed and invested in the success of their mentees. This helps them reduce their biases and learn about the representative of the minority group and makes them become champions of diversity,” the authors said, adding that mentoring programs make companies’ managerial echelons significantly more diverse. On average they boost the representation of women and minorities by 9% to 24%.
Mentoring isn’t just about training employees to understand the workflow and how the organization functions; it’s about culture and nuances of learning a profession, communication skills, leadership skills and growth as a professional and as a person. It’s also about a building a deeper connection with someone who has ‘been there, done that’ and lived to tell the tale. The most successful mentoring relationships foster mutual respect, trust, communication and career growth. As Supria Dhanda, VP and Country Manager, Western Digital India, believes, “To make diversity in technology work for the long term, mentoring is the way forward.”
With the shift in CXO role where IT is required to drive digital business initiatives, it clearly ascertains that a mentor or a trusted confidante can help her grow more quickly in her career, effectively communicate and help her bring to table much greater business value, she says.
Mentors are helpful because, in addition to the expertise in their field, they have a network of business professionals and, most importantly, they are willing to share their knowledge. Most importantly, mentoring helps the mentee better understand and recognize opportunities that are available.
Gains from structured mentoring program
For mentoring to boost diversity, it must be a formal, structured program as opposed to an informal one. Alexandra Kalev suggests that, while males tend to find mentors through their own social networks and can benefit from an informal structure, women are less likely to get a mentor through an informal program.
For women to be more empowered in the workplace, it is crucial to have structured mentorships where women can learn from each other as well as expert men in the field. As Hanadi Khalife, Director of MEA & India Operations, Institute of Management Accountants (IMA), says, “Mentorship cannot be piecemeal or sporadic. It needs to be institutionalized. Men and women industry leaders – specifically those who have been amply supported throughout their own journey – have a significant role to play in increasing mentorship and coaching programs to empower their female colleagues to grow.”
She believes, it is therefore important for women CXOs to seek out strong mentors, both male and female, who can guide and encourage your growth and remind you of your strengths and aspirations – something that will support you through your career journey.
Making mentoring a workplace norm
People who mentor are likely to have had mentors at some point – who has helped them understand their industry better, hone their strengths or sharpen skills. Interestingly, a study found that female engineering undergraduates who were paired with female mentors felt more motivated and self-assured than those with male mentors or no mentors at all. Women who were mentored by senior male leaders saw rise in compensation and career progress, as per the study.
“As organizations need to develop corporate cultures that support women who wish to achieve a healthy work life balance, rather than breed cultures that penalize them for attempting to balance priorities, mentorship programs will lead to facilitate better growth, adaptability and innovation in favor of women in the workplace,” Khalife says.
Having said all that, solving the diversity problem in the tech industry isn’t something that will happen overnight and mentoring especially needs time to build the diversity pipeline. Positions need to open, and organizations need to expand before they can fill key roles with diverse talent. However, it is up to the women tech leaders too to come forward and play a decisive role at the board level in formulating strategy for their organizations. As Melissa Woo, CIO at University of Oregon, mentions, “As female tech leaders, we have to be visible, approachable and make sure we’re working within our communities to show other women that they can do it, and we support them.”
It is time therefore organizations make mentorship a norm within the workplace in order to realistically help women techies boost their diversity agenda.