In celebration of National Women’s Day on 9 August this year, I thought I would write about women and mentorship programmes. There are various business imperatives for why there should be mentorship programmes which especially focus on female talent, despite the fact that I think formal mentorship programmes have become a business imperative for all your talent, across the gender, generational and other diversity lines.

I have spent a lot of time in the last three to four years developing, preparing and facilitating the training for formal mentorship programmes in various companies across assorted industries. Although my clients’ business focuses may differ, often their problems are similar: the workforce has changed and the workplace is more competitive and complex than it ever has been before. It is also less certain, more volatile and often presents opportunities which require new ways of thinking and doing things. As a result, there is less time to grow talent, but talent still needs to be grown. Particularly Generation Y, who innately knows that both personal and professional development in various capacities will be a norm throughout their careers.

So why mentorship? 

Talent Retention

Having organically developed people in your organization means that you are more likely to retain them and I don’t mean for 30 years at a time without a break. Successful talent retention, in my mind, means that you facilitate and create enough of a relationship, network or community within your organization, that when somebody now goes on to leave the organization that they left you for three years ago, they might consider returning to your organisation.  Only now they will returm with more experience, with a bigger network and will belong to an even more mature business community.

Building Diverse Communities For Resilience

Building networks, communities and relationships has become a business imperative. An individual’s ability to do this, within the broader context of the organisation in which they work, is a business differentiator. Collaboration, in the face of complexity, is amongst the key themes or future trends that will (and are) impact the new world of work.  The fact is that business does not come to anybody the way it used to. The market is more competitive, less loyal and has far more choice than it used to. The market is also very much more informed and able to make choices based on information that they gain on-line. Collaborative communities within and across departments, organisations and industries will be key to survival. But this involves trust and empathy, which mentorship can provide.

Facilitating Empowerment

There are employment equity and skills development legislative drivers, which necessitate introducing formal mentorship programmes. In South Africa, particularly, organisations have a responsibility to ensure that on-going skills development programmes are standard. Soft and hard skills training supports this, but what better way to grow somebody quickly, thoroughly, honestly and with a measure of accountability on the part of the mentor than a formal mentorship programme? By introducing a formal mentorship programme that is focused on growing young talent from a professional and personal perspective, that is individualized for the mentee and therefore caters for fulfilling the mentee’s personalized needs, the organisation as a whole is empowered.  Alongside this, one can solidify teams by introducing reverse-mentorship, where young people are given a voice to empower older people too.

The Female Brain Drain

Women are just one particular group within the talent pool needing mentorship. As I have intimated above, I am certainly not diminishing the need for all talent to participate in a mentorship programme, but in the month of August, I thought it would be useful to focus on why women need mentorship. There are obvious and real statistics that support the notion that companies lose well-educated and experienced female talent in the top echelons of an organisation.  This is through no fault of the organisation per se, but I do think organisations need to find ways to retain high-caliber female talent –  and mentorship is an obvious way to enable that.

In South Africa, for example, 40% of JSE listed companies had no female directors (2009); and only 3% of JSE listed companies had female CEO’s (Business Unity South Africa, 2010). Why is this so when there are more female graduates from both secondary and tertiary level education institutions? I have even read arguments that state that the education system in South Africa favours young women. Why is it that there are more women in the workplace in terms of numbers, but in terms of decision-makers, the workplace favours men?

I think it relates to the fact that both men and women have a biological imperative. Not that every man and every woman (of course there are notable exceptions) wants to fulfill a biological need to reproduce, but the majority of people do. Off-ramping to have children is a major cause for women to leave the workplace and lose their networks, skills and connections. Roughly two-thirds of women (globally) have a non-linear career due to domestic responsibilities and find it hard, therefore, to compete with men. About 93% of the women who ‘off-ramp’ to have children want to return to work for meaning and purpose after an average of 2.2 years. But even when they do return to work, they need assistance from the organisations they work for because they are primarily responsible for the domestic sphere whereas men are responsible for the finances (i.e. they remain the primary bread winner).  These trends become evident when one looks at the research:

  • 55% of South African companies fear promoting working mothers because they perceive them to be less flexible or reliable (because of their home-based responsibilities and commitments).
  • 24% of South African companies fear that mothers returning to work after ‘off-ramping’ will do so with out-dated skills; and
  • 50% of companies surveyed believe that having put money and effort into working mothers, they will lose them to wanting to have another child. 

Could these be some of the reasons why women are not being promoted in numbers that are in line with how many enter the workplace or graduate?

This research is disconcerting when one considers the education levels, experience, skills potential and gravitas that organisations all over South Africa are losing in women. I believe there is a business imperative for organisations to find a way to retain their female talent, or at least help to facilitate women in on-ramping again after the 2.2 years they have been away. The long-term nurturing, skills development and relationships that one builds through formal mentorship programmes naturally allows for connections to be established between women and the companies they want to belong to and be part of – not necessarily just work for.  

Do you know why 9 August is Women’s Day in South Africa? It is because on 9 August 1956, 20 000 women marched to the Union Buildings to deliver a petition to the then Prime Minister Strijdom’s office with 100 000 signatures on it. These women were petitioning against an amendment to the Urban Areas Act (known colloquially as the Pass Laws) which stipulated that Black Africans had to carry a pass allowing them to live and work in urban areas. As they marched they sang a protest song which rang out “now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock”.  This has come to represent women’s courage and strength in South Africa.  Whilst researching for this article, I found this phrase pertinent as a reason why female talent needs to be nurtured and utilized optimally in all industries. Women have a lot to offer the work place but with their domestic responsibilities still very apparent, how can we make their lives easier?

What is your company doing to make staying with you possible, effective and valuable? Have you considered introducing a formal mentorship programme?

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