Supporting Female Mentorship at Work

In our last article, we reviewed a curious dynamic that plays out between professional women, in which a history of inequality has created pressures that can drive a rift between female leaders and subordinates at work. We believe a renewed emphasis on a mentorship mindset can improve the relationship between female professionals. In this article, we go over a few steps that can be taken to achieve this.

Gaining awareness of our own bias

The first step towards changing our attitudes is becoming aware of our own thoughts and beliefs. Leaders can set an example by engaging in a self-account of their own implicit biases. A senior manager at a major defense contractor admitted she previously preferred female subordinates who dressed more modestly and did not wear a lot of makeup. Why? She made an assumption that the more time one spent on their appearance, the more likely they were to leverage their looks to overcome shortcomings in performance. This leader now recognizes that bias and makes a point to not let it overcome her ability to make fair and accurate evaluations. Being able to recognize one’s own biases will allow the leader to better manage their expectations for their subordinates. 

Following their leaders’ examples, subordinates need to recognize how their own implicit biases may affect the way they view the workplace and their co-workers, which can produce a change in learned behaviors that may otherwise be harmful to organizational relations.1 For example, I (Yasmine) know that I tend to find deeper voices more authoritative, and given my past experience with female leaders, often gravitate to male leadership. I (Kim) have falsely assumed that a person who was tall with an athletic build was a stronger leader than someone without those qualities. 

Understanding that we, as women, hold these types of biases can allow us to uncover unfair expectations we may hold for our female leaders. For example, just because someone is a female, does not mean she will immediately empathize with my (Yasmine’s) childcare situation. Perhaps my memory of that first encounter is colored by my expectation that a former mother would certainly understand my struggle the same way I did. In fact, I can’t discount that my memory might not even have been an accurate account! And perhaps I (Kim) had unfair expectations that women who were exposed to the same hyper-masculine working environment would all experience it the same way.

If female subordinates can become more mindful of their biases, then they can better recognize how unfair expectations can potentially lead to disappointments. 

Building mentor-mentee relationships

To build stronger mentor-mentee relationships, subordinates should explicitly ask for mentoring and honestly convey their goals and challenges. Leaders can then give more focused advice and tailor their leadership approach to better suit a subordinate’s needs. Additionally, as it is understood that some women may be reluctant to self-advocate (and therefore, ask for mentorship), leaders should not sit idly by and wait for mentorship opportunities to present themselves.

Acknowledge that your experiences in the workplace may be different

An understanding of generational differences can improve the dynamic between women of different ages. For those subordinates younger than their leaders, they must value the journey walked by the female leaders a generation ahead of them. Subordinates should recognize that their leaders may have had to jump through hoops that no longer exist. Understanding how their predecessors paved the way to female leadership can increase the respect that women hold for their seasoned colleagues, as well as increase their patience with perspectives that may be different.

Likewise, challenges facing today’s subordinates may not be the same as what leaders have had to face in the past. In fact, they may no longer exist. However, these subordinates will not be without their own personal and professional challenges, and these proteges will benefit greatly from a leader’s active and positive mentorship. 

Embrace a new vision of leadership

Female leaders may draw inspiration from a changed understanding of effective leadership. In the past century, leadership has shifted from being control-oriented to results-oriented. Traits considered more “feminine,” such as empathy and collaboration, are now considered 21st-century leadership skills. As such, traits that reflect higher emotional intelligence are in high demand.2 As opposed to power-driven leadership that neglects input from subordinates, this human-centered approach is more likely to ensure the success of an organization.3 

If this is the case, then it is imperative that leaders know their people. What drives them, motivates them, and gives them purpose? Asking these questions (which happen to be derived from the Army’s definition of leadership) will demonstrate care and foster trust. Leaders with this mindset can then customize their mentorship to address the unique needs and goals of their subordinates.

Be an enthusiastic mentor (or mentee)

Lastly, a leader should be explicitly cognizant they can influence the next generation of working women. They are not competition—rather, they are proteges. Developing the next great leaders will positively steward the organization and create a more harmonious environment where subordinates can thrive.

A mentoring relationship can be mutually beneficial. Active mentorship shows a subordinate that she has enough value and potential for a leader to care about her progression. The leader also shows that she cares about people. Every action that demonstrates an employee’s value is an investment in the organization, and a leader will build a reputation where people will want to work for them—regardless of gender.

Interestingly, women, as mentors, do not show the same inhibition when it comes to promoting or advocating for others as they do when it comes to themselves, suggesting that women can call attention to other women’s skills and efforts (both mentor and mentee) more easily.4 Leaders can thus benefit if the successes of a subordinate are viewed, by themselves and others, as their successes as well. 

Organizational structures can support mentorship

At one institution, I (Yasmine) remember a college president describing that part of his job was to incubate future talent. Truth be told, I don’t think that was in his job description. However, by seeing that as part of his role, he was advancing the future of the organization by identifying who had leadership potential and helping them. He wasn’t competing with his subordinates, but rather seeing it as his job to help them rise. Another colleague recently mentioned to me that he tells his mentees that as soon as they receive their first promotion, they should immediately begin searching for and grooming their successor. He tells them, “If there is no one to fill your current role, you can’t possibly move up, can you?”

Likewise, in the U.S. Army there is a heavy emphasis placed on mentorship. Army Doctrine Publication 6-22 states that it is the “individual professional responsibility of all leaders to develop their subordinates as leaders … to prepare subordinates for responsibilities at the next level.”5

While inherent to the Army’s culture, there is also an extrinsic organizational expectation to mentor subordinates. The ability to develop the next generation of soldiers is incentivized through a leader’s evaluations. Army leaders can be evaluated on what growth opportunities they present to their subordinates. Such examples include subordinates attending specialized schools, winning awards, or getting promoted. This results in a common Army mantra that leaders develop subordinates “to take their job one day.”

Incentivizing mentorship

Defining the workplace culture to be one that encourages the incubation of talent and support of others improves the climate for everybody, including reducing potential barriers to mentorship. Other organizations can mimic the Army by evaluating leaders on their subordinates’ performance.

Authors of a recent article published in Psychological Science recommended implementing similar practices in the world of academia. They explain that, while research shows that women who have role models are more likely to succeed, placing full responsibility on women to mentor other women also creates a burden. In particular, the authors recommend that “departments formalize and document expectations for mentorship for all faculty from and for both women and men. Mentorship should be rewarded in promotion and salary decisions and in awards for research contributions; the influence of contributions to the field from one’s students and mentees should be considered an indication of successful scholarship as well.”6

Pat Mitchell, first female president of CNN Productions and PBS, wrote in 2020 that mentoring is one of the strategies that can close the gender gap in leadership, in this country and around the world. She wrote, “I believe that one of the responsibilities of being a woman who is committed to working toward a more just world is being willing to be a mentor when and where needed.”7 

Closing thoughts

We close this essay with two anecdotes of leaders who did just this for us: they saw nurturing others’ talent as an integral part of their professional identity.

I (Yasmine) approached Dr. Talya Miron-Shatz as a young professor with ambitions to work with her on a sabbatical year. I felt I had little to offer—I was still developing my research. But for some reason, she said yes, and a few years later, I was in Israel for my first sabbatical as a Fulbright Scholar.

Talya was a great match for me as a mentor. She intellectually challenged me, questioning my assumptions with rigor, but also handled my personal challenges with empathy, and imbued in me a confidence that I, too, could be a successful academic while also raising kids. Her devotion to her own family and to work-life balance is unparalleled and yet, she is a thriving professional. She was the first person I called when I was offered an administrative position, and the first person I called when I was offered the job I currently hold. Had I not met her, I know I might have given up on myself in certain ways. What was it that worked for me? She challenged me, role modeled, believed in me, and literally, as I write this paragraph, sent me a text message to see how I’m doing. 

– –

I (Kim) found myself at another professional crossroads. Having spent a decade of my career in a combat-related field, I wanted to explore the world of academia and took a job at the United States Military Academy. I felt like a fish out of water, lacking any confidence that I could offer anything to my esteemed and educated colleagues. Then I met Lauren, a senior academic and colleague in my department. She saw value in my military experiences, and as a result, I felt confident enough to express to her my scholarly ambitions. I waited for her judgment, but instead she empowered me to actively pursue it. She presented research to me in the hopes of collaborating on scholarly publications. She spoke to me like a true peer, and when I downplayed my own contributions, she constantly encouraged me and referred to me as an academic.

Humble, caring, passionate, and innovative, Lauren was a spark to the flame. I have gained enough confidence to collaborate with other departments on research projects, and am now actively pursuing PhD programs. I no longer feel like an impostor trying to fit in. That is the power a positive mentor can have. 

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