That management opportunities for women are yet in short supply may be traceable to their not enjoying access to the traditional male avenues of networking. Mentoring may supply the answer. By Gina McColl
Studies have shown that women’s career advancement can be impeded by their lack of access to the informal world of work the after-work drinks, the weekend games of golf, and so on, which have been the traditional arenas of male networking and support.
Was Ancient Greece’s Odysseus the first modern manager? In Homer’s Odyssey, as Odysseus is leaving for the siege of Troy in 1194 BC, he installs Mentor as the manager of his household. For the next ten years, Mentor acts as teacher, adviser and friend to Odysseus son Telemachus. Now, there’s a great leader, with his line of succession and a trustworthy second-in-command all worked out.
Modern management theory has identified mentoring as a key leadership role. “The best leaders are the ones who spend a lot of time and are very involved in the mentoring of people,” says Professor Leon Mann, the Pratt Family professor of leadership and decision-making at the Melbourne Business School.
Mann is currently studying leadership roles and their effect on team performance as part of a longitudinal study of Australian research and development organisations, including BHP and Orica. He says mentoring can be effective whether it is a formal scheme (where, as often as once a week, an experienced leader will offer guidance and support in all aspects of a team member’s performance and career development) through to informal schemes (where the two might only meet infrequently and discuss more general issues, such as whom the team member should be meeting and what they should be reading). Either way, Mann says, mentoring can make all the difference to the success of the leader and to a teams performance: “If you look at the best-performing and the weakest-performing teams in our study, there is a very clear distinction between the mentoring performance of the leaders.”
Throughout the 1990s mentoring schemes have enjoyed a renaissance in the practices of large corporations as they strive to become more efficient. When organisations are downsized or re-engineered, they often suffer a huge drain in staff morale and specialist knowledge. Mentoring schemes are enabling organisations to quickly induct newcomers into the corporate culture and offer a cost-effective strategy for up-grading or diversifying people’s skills without huge training costs.
Such schemes are helping fast-track the personal and professional development of valuable employees, as well as transfusing the best qualities of top performers throughout the entire workforce. What is different about modern mentoring is that many of the proteges or “mentees”, as they are commonly known are not just the “crown-princes”, but, in some cases, entire targeted sectors of the workforce: new employees, graduates and, the particular subject of this article, women.
Mentoring schemes can especially benefit women. Studies have shown that women’s career advancement can be impeded by their lack of access to the informal world of work the after-work drinks, the weekend games of golf, and so on which have been the traditional arenas of male networking and support. Having a mentor can, for a female mentee, mean having a relationship in which to focus on informal business-skills training and networking opportunities. The outcomes? It can be crucial in providing the impetus needed to break through the proverbial “glass ceiling”, and it can help an organisation identify good employees who may be otherwise overlooked through traditional channels of recognition.
The mentoring relationship is a bilateral arrangement. Mentors can find the process stimulating as a way to explore issues, an intellectual challenge and an opportunity to encounter fresh perspectives, as well as getting valuable feedback on their own management skills. Particularly important for female mentors, too, can be the consolidation of their authority in an organisation, as they support and guide the upcoming generation in their own business perspectives and expertise.
Jane Fowler is currently researching mentoring relationships in some twenty Australian private and public-sector organisations for a doctorate at Brisbane’s Griffith University. To date, all the tools used to measure the functions and roles of mentoring schemes have been devised in the United States; Fowler, a qualified psychologist, has devised the first empirically-tested Australian tool in her investigative research. From her questionnaire and interview methodology has emerged a local definition of mentoring with at least one interesting variation from the received model.
The definition used in US studies, Fowler says, is: “A mentor is an influential individual who has advanced experience and knowledge, and who is committed to providing upward mobility and support to your career.” The new definition that has emerged from the Australian context is: “A mentor has advanced experience and knowledge and is committed to assisting, guiding and providing support in your career, personal and/or professional development.”
In contrast to North Americans, Australians place a greater emphasis on development both personal and professional. Fowler emphasises that her research and analysis is ongoing and any findings are only preliminary. Yet it may be that balancing work and family relationships, treating the mentee as a whole person whose career success depends on successfully complementing work and home lives, is emerging as a particular strength of Australian mentoring programs.
Fowler has also been researching the nexus between gender and mentoring. “I’ve looked at all four gender combinations, but it’s actually quite difficult to get the combination female mentors-male mentees. They’re the least common group.” The statistics are revealing: of approximately 450 responses from participants in mentoring schemes, around 36% comprised the combination male mentor-male mentee; 31% were female mentor-female mentee; 28% were male mentor-female mentee; and only 5% were female mentor-male mentee. “That response rate is indicative of the fairly small number of those relationships that occurs,” Fowler says.
Although she is still in the process of conducting interviews and analysing the data, Fowler is in a position to indicate some anecdotal explanations of this gender disparity. “It seems that male mentees get a hard time about having a female mentor. They get a hard time in the workplace: they can become the object of sexual innuendo and suggestions that they need a mother to look after them. And the female mentors will tell you the same thing. One male mentee who has had a relationship with a female mentor for about five years (quite a long time for a mentoring relationship) told me that they try to avoid being seeing doing projects together now. They try to spend a lot of out-of-work time, including weekends, on mentoring activities, so they’re not visible together in the workplace.”
According to Fowler, this is in marked contrast to the other gender configurations of mentoring schemes. Indeed, male mentor/female-mentee relationships often go to great lengths to confine their relationships to the workplace, and once there, to make them as visible as possible. “Male mentors won’t go and have lunch, or have a drink after work with female mentees, whereas male-male and female-female relationships are free to do that. Male mentors with female mentees will always try to meet in the office; always keeping the door open, too, so it doesn’t look like anything untoward is going on. There can be some workplace sexual innuendo in these cases, too.”
In these days of Monica and the President, it is no surprise that there is a lot of sexual anxiety in the workplace. The publicity given to sexual harassment lawsuits has meant that most large corporations have developed guidelines and reporting procedures to ensure they comply with the law; and managers are well-advised to be cautious and transparent in their relations with junior staff. Yet, reading from Jane Fowler’s statistics, there is a disturbing disparity between the two cross-gendered relationships. Senior women, it would seem, are in a double-bind: their workplace authority is being subsumed under the gender stereotypes of female predator and mother, provider of emotional comforts. If their only strategy is to conduct the mutually-beneficial mentoring relationship off-site, they run the risk of not being able to consolidate and communicate the benefits of mentoring throughout the workplace.
And although 59% of mentees are women, according to Fowler’s data, only 36% of mentors are female. Is this because of the workplace gender anxieties expressed in some of the anecdotal evidence, or is this a reflection of the relative paucity of women in senior management; and can the two be separated?
Redressing the imbalance
Women comprise about 42% of the Australian workforce. The percentage of women managers in large organisations has risen dramatically in the last two decades (the Queensland branch of the Australian Institute of Management reports around 22% of its members are women, an increase of 5% over the past 12 months), yet their representation at the senior management level is poor. In her book on Australian executive culture, Trials at the Top, Dr Amanda Sinclair, professor of management (diversity and change) at the Melbourne Business School, claims that there is a lower percentage of women in executive positions in Australia than in either comparable Western countries or industrialised and developing countries in the Asian region.
The 1998 Korn/Ferry International survey of boards of directors in Australia and New Zealand shows that although 34% of Australian companies had at least one woman on their board (compared with 71% in the US in 1996), only 7.6% of board members were women. In Australia, 9.7% of non-executive directors on boards were women (up from 7.3% in 1997) and 1.3% of executive directors on boards were women (up from 1% in 1997).
Since the 1970s, several theories have emerged to explain what is holding women back in the corporate world, and strategies proposed to allow them to progress. Some arguments focus primarily on the numbers: the poor representation of women in senior management can be explained by a paucity of female role models, the argument runs, and is best addressed by the short-term solution of affirmative action, or positive discrimination, principles whereby, given a female and a male candidate of equal merit, the female candidate will succeed. The “short-termism” of this approach is defended as a strategy to speedily institute the equal representation of men and women in positions of seniority; once such representation becomes the norm, real equality of access and opportunity will exist and gender equity will be self-sustaining.
One draw-back of this approach is that it reduces pioneering women to the status of tokens; another is that positive discrimination proposes that inequality can be solved only by treating women as though they were men. It fails to recognise both the unequal impediments to female advancement, and the different qualities, skills and approaches that female candidates may have but which are “invisible” to the long-entrenched structures of selection and qualification. In short, some management theorists propose focusing less strictly on the issue of numerical proportion and more on issues of “difference”.
The workplace strategies that have emerged from this school of thought take as their focus the very structures that can advance the individual’s career. Women are less likely to reach the top, the theory goes, because there is an inherent bias towards men in the backgrounds and skills that are considered requisite. This is not an argument that assumes a conspiracy of exclusion on the part of men: far from it. What feminist theorists, from Germaine Greer to Naomi Wolf, argue is that structures historically devised by and dominated by men have embedded values that give preference to masculine attributes and male candidates. It is in the very nature of the status quo that it should appear normal and natural. Women are as likely as men are to have internalised these biases and assumptions.
The classic background of men who qualify for selection to senior executive positions is in production and finance. Women’s management experience is more likely to be in human resources, marketing and customer service. IBIS research published in a BRW survey of emerging female stars last year showed that of head-office management positions in the top 2000 companies, 35% of personnel heads are women, with 18% in marketing and 7.2% in finance. The same study found that only 2.8% of women were chief executives. Ironically, under the pressure of globalisation, it is as likely to be branding and service traditionally female-friendly areas as production and finance that will allow a company to take the leading edge against international competitors.
A further fulcrum for the destabilisation of the status quo has come to light in management debates about the benefits of diversity in managerial style. In some cases, women are credited with bringing a new style of inclusion, consultation and persuasion to senior appointments. Judy Wajcman, professor of sociology at the Australian National University, has criticised this view as tending to be prescriptive for women. In her recent book Managing like a Man, she argues that viewing women managers in isolation from their male counterparts has the effect of obscuring the fact that gender differences masculinity and femininity are, by their very nature, relational rather than inherent, and that so-called “feminine” virtues are implicitly defined against a masculine norm. “Quarantining women in this way,” Wajcman points out, “has the effect of locating women as the problem, and reinforces assumptions that men are uniformly to the management-manner born.”
Finally, there is the day-to-day structure of the workplace itself. Not only have the customary places of informal networking the golf course, the bar been masculine provinces, but the requirement to devote after-hours and weekend time to them has also been a practice unfriendly to women with families. The organisation that desires to tackle these issues needs to provide options such as paternity leave, flexible work schedules and a child-care centre, and also ensure that women’s advancement is not impeded if they are absent from informal, extra-curricular networking events. In pursuit of this goal, mentoring schemes are widely recognised as a principal strategy. But while they are clearly offering substantial benefits to many of the women involved as mentees, the same advantages are not emerging as strongly for female mentors.
Statistics such as Fowler’s have economic as well as equity implications. As companies globalise and international competition intensifies, companies have to take advantage of the talents and strengths of their whole workforce.
Mentoring for the next millennium
Em Brideson runs Empower for Life, a consultancy she set up in Melbourne last year in response to “what people were needing and wanting for a new age in business.” A psychologist who has worked in the clinical and organisational fields, over the last ten years, she identified a trend in her work away from people who were presenting with classic pathological problems and towards people who needed guidance, support and validation. She now describes herself as a professional life-mentor and coach.
“Modern business practices are leaving a lot of people very isolated: sole practitioners, consultants, people running small businesses and those at the top of organisations.” Frequently, Brideson says, these people have no access to mentors, and are often struggling to maintain career paths and relationships and achieve change and personal growth. “The problems of professional isolation are very real,” she says. “Whereas once we could talk to our spouses, families, friends and colleagues, they are often too busy now, and either don’t have the experience to help or are potentially in competition with us.” The solution to this may be found in the services of a professional mentor.
Brideson sees a range of clients, from those who want to run through a business proposition to those who are troubled with personal or relationship problems. She can draw on her own small-business and organisational experience, as well as offer training in interpersonal skills, communication, personal appearance, self-assertion and vocational direction. Her fundamental role, she says, is to “Listen, advise, guide, relate and empathise … and help people reach their goals.”
“People in business generally know their business: they’re technically competent. But what keeps them going climbing or failing is their mental health.” Realistic and clear aspirations, confidence and, crucially, the ability to form successful relationships with people both above and below you: “they are the kinds of things we help people resolve.”
Brideson believes women are often more highly skilled in this “emotional intelligence” and men are coming to recognise that they need these qualities too she estimates that of her corporate clients, 80% are men. But she cautions that it may also be that men have more resources to spend on the services of a professional mentor.
Is this the future of mentoring? Perhaps it is. Brideson has recently been approached by the Collins Street Novotel Hotel to be an on-call Corporate Coach/Mentor. She will be available to help with the problems of business guests, whether it’s the dislocation of frequent interstate travel, the need to de-brief after completing an unpleasant task, or the pressure of a forthcoming presentation. Whether the delegation of mentoring functions to independent consultancies can provide the kinds of networking advantages and richness of organisational experience that internal mentors have to offer, however, remains to be seen.