‘Women in Leadership’ has probably been a focus of discussion for decades and no doubt it has looked different in different eras through out history. However, I think that now, in the new world of work, more than ever that the consideration of ‘Women in Leadership’ should be something that those in positions of policy and decision-making should be paying attention to. Why, because the notion of women being in positions of leadership is becoming more and more of a reality. In November 2010 the global workforce tipped from being a primarily male-dominated one, to being a predominantly female workforce, in terms of numbers. However, according to CNN Money only 12 of the Fortune 500 companies are currently being run by women (2011). Women are starting to feature more and more in global politics (although there have historically been very influential women in this space, most noticeably Margaret Thatcher). There has also been a global trend where there is an increasing number of female graduates from university and secondary level education across all learnerships or academic disciplines; and in fact the number of female graduates has surpassed that of men.  There has even been debate expressing concern about male education in the future. So why this disconnect between graduates and decision-makers amongst female talent? Female talent retention has been an on-going problem for most industries; and companies are starting to wake up to the fact that they cannot afford to lose their female talent. But, at the same time, in developing economies in particular, the cost of child care has influenced a trend that has seen educated women having to take on work that they are over-qualified to do, become a ‘mompreneur’, or give up work altogether, because it is cost effective for them to put their domestic duties first. This is problematic in an economy that needs female skill and experience.  What is emerging is a convoluted conversation around the role women will play in the world of work going forward; and obviously subtle differences influenced by religion, culture, history, politics and tradition will play a part in the different experiences women will have in the workplace in different environments.

Mentorship is something that has existed in every traditional society through out social history. Mentoring has historically been culturally based and informal. The word Mentor comes from a story in ancient Greek mythology. It was the name given to the wise and trusted adviser the hero Odysseus left looking after his son Thelemacus when he took years and years to return home after the Trojan Wars, as recounted in Homer’s famous epic story called ‘The Odyssey’. So mentorship is not a new concept. In a modern work context formal mentorship is something that has been largely neglected up until the 1990’s, since when there has been a resurrection of it, because of the need young people have for mentorship in the world of work today. There are a multitude of reasons for this, not least of which is the complexity of the workplace today as well as the changing workforce. The environment is more versatile, cut throat and competitive than ever before. There are no guarantees for young people (even with tertiary level education) that they are going to get the kind of job they aspired to when beginning their studies.  I also think that young people today have grown up in an education and social system that is not equipped to prepare them for the future, not because it is anybody’s fault, but because everything is changing so rapidly.  Employees today don’t stay working for the same organisation for their entire careers like they used to. They may move backwards and forwards from the same organisation, or they may move from one department to another within an organisation. This movement requires that they a) learn the job very quickly and b) need to keep learning new skills. I think the issue is around loyalty. Loyalty from employees towards the organisation and the organisations loyalty towards the employee. Loyalty is going to be a key differentiating factor for people and organisations in the future.

In my opinion loyalty will involve self-esteem. The individual’s sense of validation, being recognised; and being nurtured within an environment, so that there is a sense of team-esteem and ultimately an organisation’s sense of identity (which used to be known as culture). That is where mentorship will play a hugely important role. Why? Because mentoring employees is different to managing them. Managing people is about focusing on the tasks they have to complete; and of course will continue to be necessary. But I question whether people will be emotionally and psychologically able to perform their tasks optimally if they are not mentored, particularly within the context of an increasingly complex and diverse demographic within organisations. There is also a distinction between tolerance and empathy. Most people inside large organisations learn tolerance for one another’s difference, but do they know how to empathise with that difference? Mentorship is a key way to find empathy. Mentorship is also about binding networks within and across organisations, because to truly know and understand people within the organisation will facilitate natural networks; and this, I believe, will be key to building resilience for the survival for any organisation in our volatile and uncertain future.

I think one of the problems in the last two decades with mentorship is that those with the gravitas, who would be in a position to mentor, have lost faith in mentoring young people because young people move around a lot. I also think that the pressures of a profit driven environment in the new world of work has meant that mentors do not always have time to mentor, because their own responsibilities have become so demanding. This is why informal mentorship has lapsed and ironically has possibly contributed to a) young people becoming disillusioned with the workplace, which is one reason for why they leave, and ill-equipped to cope with responsibilities, putting more pressure on more senior people. It is a cycle. I also think that the need for emotional intelligence to compliment intellectual intelligence is a new factor in the mix; and not something potential mentors know how to help mentees with, because it was not something that featured in their career path.

But there has been a shift in thinking in recent years around mentorship. Those in decision-making positions realise that mentorship has become an imperative. 71% of Fortune 500 companies are running successful formal mentorship programmes. The difference today, however, is that they have become formalised in order for them to actually work. Mentorship programmes have to be driven and supported or people get too busy to really participate. Mentoring has also become less about one’s direct supervisor or manager guiding you on the job; and more about having a trusted person in the organisation to help grow you as an individual.

I think that women; and their role in the workplace, their potential to seek top management positions and their desire to play a bigger part in shaping the world of work, illuminates the need for formal, structured and measured mentorship programmes going forward. Having said this I am not suggesting for a second that only women need mentoring! But generally speaking women need mentoring in what are generally still male dominated work environments, particularly regarding networking opportunities. Women (and especially those who have exited from the workplace to give birth and look after children) need opportunities to maintain or resurrect their skills and connections once they return to work.

So, what would be in it for the organisation if you paid special attention to mentoring women? Well, besides the fact that you may lose valuable talent, there is the business imperative around employment equity and skills development requirements that our legislation dictates. Would it not be good to be at the forefront of nurturing your potential future leadership pool now, so that you can fully understand as an organisation what women require in order to be as successful as they can be in whatever capacity they are contributing to your bottom line?

Have you implemented a mentorship programme in your organisation? Have you considered ways to empower women so that they have a choice to stay with you for the duration of their careers (or to at least consider returning if they leave for whatever reason)? If you have any success stories, I would love to hear about them.

If you have not considered mentorship, I wonder why not; and would also be interested in your views. If you think you have informal mentorship happening in your organisation do you still think that’s sustainable or really working? What do you think your employees could get out of a formal mentorship programme? Are you losing high-caliber female talent at certain levels of your organisation; or is your female talent wavering in their productivity because of their life-style demands? If so, how could your organisation assist them in being more consistently productive? Have you checked the loyalty levels in your teams lately? What does your organisation’s identity look like; and how healthy (emotionally) are your teams? Are you ready for the future? Are you resilient enough to survive?

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