As someone who thought for a long time that privileged, educated, working women didn’t exactly “need” feminism, allies or mentors at the workplace, I am eating my own words now. I had only known women like me – outspoken, opinionated, and comfortably “bossy”. We are the “strong independent type” and know how to take our rightful share at workplaces, don’t we? But a quick look at the numbers signal extreme gender disparity at the top. In 2017, only 2 % of startup fundraising went to those with women leaders. Women’s participation at senior levels is at a measly 18% - that’s half the number at middle management. We are represented at 8 % in C-suites and 1 % in boardrooms. In fact, if you are generally observational, you don’t even need these numbers to back the argument. You only have to walk into corporate meetings to see the disparity in action.
There are many reasons for it – lack of conducive workplaces for women who play more roles than that of just a working professional. Then there is generations of conditioning and biases like expecting women to “opt out” after marriage and childbirth. There is a whole new burden on us now – to “have it all” and to “do it all”. But what’s often lacking is a solid support system and mentorship - things men have long enjoyed in their old boys networks. Another thing that often spoils our workplace experience as women is the blame game. Aggressively pushing our own professional agendas at work? Oh, too ambitious! Toning it down, keeping our nose to the grind and quietly doing what it takes. Go beyond the charade of inclusiveness at workplaces and you will see how it is still hard for senior women at work to be more than an “office moms”. Something about these expectations doesn’t quite feel right.
I need much more space than an article to list down everything that needs to change in Indian workplaces for them to actually be conducive to all genders equally. So I am going to touch upon one topic – mentorship. When I say mentorship, I don’t mean that boss who wants to be a knight in shining armour in the office. We have enough of those and they are not of much help. I just mean experienced individuals – senior men and women – who are capable of treating young women professionals as equals, guiding and training them as people with potential, not as a lass in the woods who must be protected and saved from this big bad world.
Mentorship - without the drama that if often associated with it - can be helpful in encouraging women to participate in the workforce more wholeheartedly, fight the battles they need to fight without overthinking the repercussions, and take their rightful share of salaries and senior, decision-making positions.
Understand your own biases and their challenges before you take on the role of a mentor
You can’t possibly mentor right if you don’t recognize your own gender biases. Do you actually believe in gender roles at work? Do you freely express your thoughts about how women married to “rich husbands” don’t need to work very hard? Are you afraid that your woman mentee may not be ready for the next role because she has just had a baby and you don’t want her to abandon her family responsibilities and vice-versa? Do you think she needs to smile more, be pleasant, or worse, wear make up to work? Then you need to step back and internalize that there are the mentee’s decision to make, not yours.
Your job is simply to answer questions and help navigate tough conversations about managing up, salary and promotion negotiation etc. Women’s personal lives get brought up in work conversations far too often. I, too, had a boss who just couldn’t stop talking to me about make up, pressure cookers and woks. The least you can do as a mentor is to stop bringing gender into every interaction you have with your mentee. If you want to know how ridiculous such conversations sound, I’d strongly recommend going over to a Twitter handle called @ManWhoHasItAll.
At the same time, it is also important that you understand the challenges women face at the workplace. If you are a woman mentor, you will probably have it easy. You would have gone through the same cycle of self-doubt, self-censorship, unwanted sexual advances that are rampant even in 2017, or the inability to unequivocally demand returns or express opinions. But even as women mentors, it is important that you don’t disregard the experiences of more opinionated, aware, and demanding young women professionals. This year alone has brought out many such opinions from senior women at work - who dismissed period leave and spoke of sexual harassment at work as unnecessary fluff of “weak millennials”. Generational bias is a real issue, and when you add gender to the mix and you have a disaster at hand.
Keep your equation with your woman mentee focused only on objective, work-related discussions and guidance. Mentorship does not have to be patronizing. And please, don’t fall for sexist WhatsApp forwards that seem to tell you, over and over again, that all women are the same.
Timing is crucial
Given that middle management is where women start to disappear from the workforce, it is important that organizations and leadership mentors start the process of mentorship as early as possible. It can start as early as day 1, you really don’t need to wait for women employees to gain experience and build skills before they are ready to be mentored. Most professionals need it early on in their careers. At the same time, these mentorship programs are good for business too.
According to Chronus, a US-based mentoring technology organization, “Mentoring programs remind women that their career development is important to their employer, and can help women progress through the mid-career drop off and into the leadership positions left by the Boomer exit. In fact, Sun Microsystems found the ROI on mentoring can be 1,000 per cent or better, growing as the mentoring program matures.”
A word here for the women too - it is all right to ask for help and guidance, even with “strong and independent” label we have put upon ourselves. Allies can make everything a little easier. Mentorship can be a powerful force for organizations and industry groups to truly live their diversity and inclusion agenda. There are enough dude-bros around and if women are to participate equally in the workforce, as employees, leaders and founders, we are going to need an antidote for the dude bros and old boys’ networks. Let’s stop being embarrassed about it and find the mentors and networks we need.