Are mentoring programmes that target women and minorities fair?

mentoring programme‘To be equal, shouldn’t our mentoring programme be open to white men as well?’ People sometimes ask why we help companies develop mentoring programmes aimed at mentees from non-traditional backgrounds. And they are right – mentoring programmes should be open to everyone if we worked in a world that was already equal; in a world where ethnic minorities and women were as statistically likely to have the top jobs as white men. However, for those who are serious about increasing diversity in leadership, there is nothing wrong with prioritising ethnic minorities and women as your mentees and senior leaders (who disproportionately tend to be white and male) to be the mentors.

The truth is, the introduction of a formal mentoring programme doesn’t stop anyone, white male or otherwise, from seeking mentors. It merely makes these relationships more accessible to those who haven’t traditionally benefited from such relationships informally. In fact, in our reviews with mentors, they often compare these ‘formal’ relationships against the informal ones – the relationships that just seem to ‘crop up’. Nine times out of ten, informal relationships are with more junior white men – men who remind them of a younger version of themselves. The time to make formal mentoring programmes equally accessible to white male mentees as it is to everyone else, is when your senior leadership team is as diverse as your consumer and talent base. Until then, giving a leg up to those who are less likely to ‘crop up’ when it comes to discussing promotions is the only way to make real change.

Why assumptions that women ‘Fall in Love’ at work hinders senior male sponsorship

WomenNobel Laureate Tim Hunt has quite rightly come in for criticism for his comments about his ‘problem with girls in the lab’. But it does unearth a vain assumption about the helplessness of women falling under the spell of their male colleagues. But the bigger problem is that these kinds of assumptions, held by many senior men and women as well, hold women back from networking closely with men or benefiting from their sponsorship. While Hunt is in the firing line, these assumptions are not limited to science. As the Centre for Talent Innovation found in their research on mentoring and sponsorship, a majority of senior men are concerned about obviously helping junior women for fear of it being misconstrued.

For example, the Washington Post recently detailed how common this is in US government. Female and male congressional staffers on the Hill were surveyed by the National Journal about access to their bosses. They found clear evidence, from both male and female staffers, that women were being being barred from spending time one on one, having closed door meetings or even in some cases travelling with their male bosses. Ostensibly, for some male bosses this is to ‘protect’ both parties from any ‘misunderstandings’ and suspicious onlookers. However, as Catherine Rampell wrote in the piece: ‘These rules- which inherently sexualise what should be mundane work interactions – seemed predicated on the premise that either all women are devilish temptresses irresistible to their libidinous bosses or that all women are liars who will fabricate sexual harassment charges at the slightest provocation.’

As in the case of every man and woman who eschews workplace interaction with the opposite sex, it disproportionately limits the careers of women who are more likely to need senior male support to progress. Sensitive and strategic decisions are the most likely kind to be made behind closed doors – an impossibility for a woman to influence if she has to be chaperoned or is excluded. As Rampell explained: ‘No wonder female staffers earn, on average, $6000 less than their male counterparts , a disparity driven by the fact women are underrepresented in senior positions ….which will continue as long as predominantly male bosses insist on never becoming true mentors, confidants and sponsors to women’. The best advice: Create a culture where interactions between men and women are encouraged and discussed as normal. And if that doesn’t work, as Rampell suggests, remind men: “There’s no better way of cultivating suspicions of lechery than announcing to the world you can’t be left alone with a lady’. Certainly, this was the same comment raised by senior people we know after Hunt announced the frequency with which ‘women fall in love with him or he falls in love with them’.

Women as ‘mentors’, but not judges: Reduce bias in organising competitions


I recently volunteered to give my time over a weekend to an Entrepreneurial start-up event. As an established business woman, I was asked if I’d mentor teams that had formed on a Friday night, on the Saturday and Sunday. The mentoring remit was to help them pull together an idea; establish market viability, and develop a business plan for pitching to a panel of judges on the Sunday night.

In the run up to the event, several drafts of the list of mentors and judges were distributed. I noticed that with each successive mailing, the number of men on the mentors list shrank as would-be mentors pulled out while the number of male judges increased. On the first morning, I arrived to find that no male mentors had indeed arrived, leaving a small team of 4 female mentors and a well-intentioned male organiser. The event went well, and I enjoyed working with my team for 8 hours that weekend. I was especially delighted when my team won on the Sunday night, but I couldn’t help but notice the gender split; men were happier to volunteer their time for ‘judging’ (1-2 hours max) whereas women had been asked to take on the much more time consuming task of ‘mentoring.’

The event organiser is a friend in the business community, and no doubt this gender split was unintentional. However, it is evidence of unconscious bias, and one I’ve seen at other events where women are expected to do a time-consuming event organisation role but men are asked to do jobs that showcase their expertise as judges and headline speakers. Perhaps it also speaks to how men value their time and see their value versus women. In any case, it sends an implicit message women are support, but men are the stars.

Again, no one is ’trying’ to be biased, but it reminded me of when I started out consulting in this field, leaders would sometimes say to me: ‘We have gender balance: 50% of our staff are women. They just happen to be in secretarial roles while the other half are male bosses – so we are balanced!’  Avoid this deadly sin next time you are organising an event to ensure you have a mixed team behind the scenes, as well as on centre-stage.

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