Workplace Mentoring Programs can Help Women Get Ahead

Human resources professionals know gender equality remains elusive in many industries, but what can they do about it?

While this issue has many dimensions, one solid step that many companies can take is to create a mentoring program that is designed to help all employees – not just women – climb the ladder and take on more challenging roles. Setting up a mentoring program is not always easy, as it requires commitment, planning and executive buy-in. However, the results can be tangible and measured through retention, employee satisfaction and female representation in high-ranking roles.

Where Women Stand Today

“Women in the Workplace 2017,” a recently published report by consulting firm McKinsey & Company and, describes the challenge of gender equality in detail. It says that women make up almost half of all entry-level positions, but that number rapidly declines in the corporate pipeline — roughly one-fifth of senior vice president and C-suite roles (CEO, CFO, etc.) are filled by women.

The report found women make up less than 20% of C-suite positions in certain industries such as telecom (15%), banking (18%), technology (17%), insurance (17%), energy (16%), and automotive and industrial manufacturing (13%). However, the numbers are different in other sectors including healthcare (35%), retail (31%), media (27%) and professional services (26%).

One of the biggest challenges that human resources professionals face is that men might not understand the extent of the gender equality issue. At companies where only one in 10 senior leaders was a woman, the report found that nearly 50% of men believed women were well represented in leadership.

Companies that embrace a well-organized mentoring program can expect to see greater job satisfaction, higher rates of retention and increased productivity from employees. As Inc. magazine points out, a mentoring program “demonstrates to employees that management is willing to invest the time and resources necessary to help employees succeed in their careers.”

Launching a Mentoring Program

The first step in starting any mentoring program is to get executive buy-in. Without backing from senior leaders, participants may not feel like the program is getting the attention it deserves. The McKinsey/ report says that only a third of employees feel that their leaders truly show support for gender equality.

One way to bring the C-suite on board is to show the proven link between gender equality and business performance. Research firm MSCI found that boards with “strong female leadership” (boards with three or more female members, or with a woman as CEO and on the board) saw a higher return on equity than those without. Fortune reports that companies run by female CEOs see higher performance in the markets and perform three times better than their competitors on the S&P 500.

Once you have secured support from senior executives and the C-suite, the second step is to identify potential mentors and mentees. Find leaders with an authentic interest in helping others to be mentors, and look for mentees with promise and the desire to advance in their careers. Selection can be done on an informal basis, with managers reaching out to gauge interest among employees, or the process can be more formalized based on performance reviews, succession planning and individual assessment tools.

It will be important to find mentors and mentees that get along well with each other, or else there will be little trust in the relationship. To achieve this, companies might want to allow mentees to help choose their mentors, and encourage mentors and mentees to set regular meeting times and commit to a long-term relationship.

Organizations should measure the success of the mentorship program regularly. While every company will want to look at different metrics, good ones include how many people are involved in the program and the professional advancement of mentees.

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