The benefits of mentoring are legion. That’s why in recent years there has been a push for executives to take on younger women as protégés and, through mentoring or sponsorship, help them rise through the ranks, reducing the gender gap at the top of most organizations.
But as the situation for women in organizations change – albeit sometimes at glacial speed – mentors have to be wary that they are on solid grounding. “Mentoring women requires more than just sharing your own experiences, regardless of your gender. This is because times, tropes and gender truths have changed since most mentors have been in the trenches their protégés work in today,” executive coach Dana Theus writes on her blog.
That means understanding today’s reality and, in particular, the unconscious biases that can block women’s progress. She argues some common workplace mentoring advice for women actually perpetuates the gender gap and is based on workplace truisms born out of the 1970s when women were relatively new to any kind of leadership. “Almost 50 years later, what were once truths have become tropes,” she warns.
Tropes aren’t necessarily untrue. But they can become overused and stale, more figurative than literal. They can mislead. So you need to be aware of the tropes and replace them with new truths. Here are some that Ms. Theus offers:
Trope: You must work twice as hard for half the credit. New truth: Working twice as hard just earns you more work – so be careful.
A boss who expects a woman to underperform will be highly likely to undervalue her contribution, requiring her to overperform without extra compensation to be seen by that boss as credible and competent. Ms. Theus says women still have to prove themselves, have to learn how to accomplish things that matter and have to work harder than colleagues who enjoy the privilege of the benefit of the doubt when they underperform.
But that can lead to exhaustion and burnout – martyring themselves for diminishing returns. She tells mentors: Help your protégés train colleagues to respect their time by achieving high-priority results in the time they have, and turning away low-value projects that don’t lead to promotions or significant advantage.
Trope: Never cry at work. New truth: Emotional intelligence at work is critical to success, and all authentic feelings are key sources of information.
Long ago, women were labelled as “too emotional” by the men running workplaces. The office was the realm of the brain and the home the domain of the heart. “The cultural bias against emotional expression at work has been wielded as a cudgel against women, and men(!), penalizing everyone for emotional expressions such as crying while failing to penalize men for toxic expressions such as angry outbursts,” writes Ms. Theus.
At the same time, we are increasingly aware that emotions – specifically, emotional intelligence – can be crucial to business success. Ms. Theus tells mentors: Help your protégé master EQ to enhance her situational leadership skills and use genuine expressions of emotion, in herself and in others, as information sources to make better decisions.
Trope: If you’re not projecting confidence, you have imposter syndrome. New truth: Imposter syndrome is not a condition but a crucible of professional and personal growth.
The imposter syndrome was first uncovered in high-achieving women who felt somehow they were not up to their job – fake successes – as they worried about their lapses or potential lapses. Now it’s recognized that many men share that trait.
Ms. Theus says early in their careers many successful young women actually feel confident because they are enjoying the successes and rewards of their work as individual contributors. But when they move closer to mid-career and gain access to management opportunities, their situation becomes more challenging and lack of confidence can enter the picture. They might even turn down promotions they are qualified for (waiting, Ms. Theus stresses, for when they are more confident and probably overqualified).
Her advice to mentors: Help the female protégé you work with gain a new perspective, viewing the imposter she senses within as an ally who challenges her to master uncertainty and risk. Help her use success to develop a personal brand narrative she can believe in. Because women regularly go beyond self-imposed limitations when they believe something important is on the line, help her identify the external mission that captures her imagination and can help her let go of her anxieties about failure.
Ms. Theus identifies nine tropes. They include women are good at collaboration, which should be replaced by the more realistic women are good at all kinds of leadership. Women are uncomfortable with risk can be replaced with women are comfortable with considered and managed risk. Mentors should not tell women that they just need to ask for a raise to close the pay gap. Research is now indicating they actually do ask, contrary to past belief, but encounter systemic biases and barriers. They need help negotiating around those biases – or to leave that job.
So yes, women still face special circumstances. Mentorship can help. But not if it’s fixated on the past. There are enough modern challenges to overcome.
- The first rule of decision-making, legendary management professor Peter Drucker argued, was to not make a decision unless there is disagreement first. Consultant Stephen Lynch says that means if everyone agrees at the outset, tell them to go away and come back with some counter-viewpoints.
- Individuals procrastinate with tasks but the consultants at NOBL Academy point out that organizations do as well when faced with change that most people acknowledge is necessary but feel must be put off for a better time. Counter that by determining what will happen if change doesn’t take place, focusing on urgent issues since in most organizations urgency trumps importance.
- The best way to retain top talent is to help them set goals that align with their values, says consultant LaRae Quy.
Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.