Women in leadership - is mentoring enough?


Women in leadership


Mentorship for women in leadership roles is crucial to rebalancing gender inequality at work but mentorship only makes an impact if women can access senior leadership roles. We take a deep dive into the role of mentorship in female leadership and how a different approach to equality in leadership might create better outcomes.  

“Women still face bias, the prospect of an unacceptable work/life balance in exchange for senior progression and the challenge in navigating a male-oriented promotion path.”  

These comments are from Law Society President Stephanie Boyce earlier this year, as they marked the third anniversary of their Women in Law pledge – encouraging Law Firms to support the progression of women and set clear plans for gender equality and diversity.  But, the Law Society also acknowledges the need to analyse data and engage with employees to understand the specific barriers faced by women – and this isn’t agnostic to their industry either.  


Changing equality in the workplace 


A 2022 survey revealed that whilst women occupy 43% of the non-executive FTSE 100 board roles, just 14% of executive positions are occupied by women. Moreover, the average salary for female directors is 74% less than that of their male counterparts. 

What statistics such as this show is that there is still some way to go before organisations can truly claim to be both diverse and inclusive. According to a 2018 study, if we continue at our current rate it will take 217 years for women to reach parity with men in the workplace.  

That’s only another 213 years to go. 

So, what might be going wrong? What is preventing women from not just breaking the glass ceiling but smashing it apart? 


Reforms in reporting 


The UK government has decided to release thousands of UK companies from a string of reporting requirements by reclassifying them as small businesses. These reclassifications for businesses under 500 people, pose a threat to the diversity and inclusivity of these businesses and could ‘turn back the clock’ on the positive progress such reporting has helped businesses to make.  


Ticking the boxes  


Equality, diversity, and inclusion aren’t tick-box exercises. It’s about doing meaningful work that will create positive change, where women are properly supported, sponsored, and the system has the enablers for them to advance.  

It all comes back to culture. You need to know what your culture is truly like before you can get started. You need to understand what your culture is like to your employees and leaders, what the inhibitors and enablers are, and put the policies and processes you have in place under the microscope.   


Organisational culture and leadership 


The organisational culture is unspoken and often unconscious. To create the changes a company needs to address the disparity at the top, it first needs to be aware of how its culture is playing a part in creating that disparity in the first place.  

This is why assessing your culture is key. By analysing unhelpful behaviours you can put processes in place to change them. For example, if the culture prescribes a particular work/life balance then it may be working against promoting women to leadership roles as a disproportionate amount of childcare tends to fall on women. In this example, if you change the culture then you open up opportunities for better diversity at the top.  


Mentoring and women in leadership 


One of the ways that companies support women is to provide mentors. Women in higher positions of power pass on their knowledge and experience to younger women who want to follow a similar career path. At its core, mentoring is designed to help an individual to improve their skills or abilities or outlook – making it a very valuable tool in a personal journey. It’s comparatively easy to set up, but this means it’s a bit of a ‘tick box’ activity. 

This is not to disparage the value of mentoring for women at work but it does not go far enough to make the significant change that’s needed. It can also be problematic for women to share how they got to the top in a male-dominated culture as it becomes an exercise in “fixing women” rather than fixing the underlying operating system that creates an imbalance in the first place.  

This is why we contend that women are over-mentored and under-sponsored. Mentoring gives no guarantee that any of the actions a mentee takes will result in a step up the organisational ladder. 


Mentoring vs sponsorship 


Interestingly one recent study looking at gender bias in hiring  commented that “We find women need to have more qualifications than what is necessary for a job – which is consistent with evidence documenting  women‘s relatively slower ascent up the organizational hierarchy compared to men.” Mentoring may give an individual those qualifications, but it won’t necessarily help advancement. 

That’s where sponsorship comes in. Sponsoring an individual means taking a real interest in their progression. It means helping them to network, becoming their advocate, and seeking out potential roles, responsibilities, and opportunities for them to advance their career. In a way, mentoring is a passive activity whilst sponsoring is active. But sponsorship will only work if it takes place within a supportive culture, which accepts and engages with diversity. 


Creating a culture of diversity 


The glass ceiling is cracking but in far too many ways it is still holding firm. It’s more than time to smash it open with a culture reset which truly promotes equality in leadership. To support female leaders in the workplace, you first need to understand what structures and behaviours are creating stumbling blocks.  

Data will help you measure your progress but collecting data alone will not change the underlying culture. This needs deep work from an outside set of eyes that can give you an overview of what’s really happening within your company.  


Want women’s leadership development that really makes a difference to them and the rest of the business? Read more about our holistic women’s leadership programme. 


You can also listen to an in-depth discussion on tackling the cultural norms that hold women back, featuring our co-founder Derek Bishop. 

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