I took an executive to task the other day, when he talked about gender inequality as a “women’s issue”. The implication was that he and his colleagues would take more notice, the more of an issue female employees made it. Of course, it’s actually a man’s issue as well. As a director of a large company, he has a legal and moral responsibility to use its resources wisely. Wasting female talent I told him, was a dereliction of his responsibilities, in the same order as poor product design, or investment losses. What makes it worse is that, according to the latest international survey by Kelly, talent management has now become CEOs’ top priority and biggest headache — inefficient succession planning and talent management are among the biggest threats to corporate well-being.

Of course, there has been a lot of progress in recent years. But there is still an enormous hill to climb. According to a recent survey by the Institute of Leadership and Management, 73% of UK women believe there are barriers preventing women progressing into the top levels of management. One of those barriers, says the ILM, is lower self-belief, which leads to lower confidence, and hence to women on average taking three years longer to get their first management position.

Even after they step onto the management ladder, other research shows that, at each level of advancement, women are only half as likely to be promoted as men. And the most recent McKinsey report on gender inequality (a study of 235 European companies) found that while 90% had relevant programmes, and nearly two-thirds had 20 or more different initiatives going, the impact has been generally low. There have been some improvements in representation of women on company boards from 12% in 2007 to 17% in 2012– driven in particular by quotas. But appointment of female non-executive directors doesn’t create much of a pull through. So representation on the all-important executive committees lags behind at 10%.

What’s all this to do with mentoring? Well, diversity mentoring, and gender-based diversity mentoring in particular, is the fastest growing application of mentoring in employment. It’s growing so fast because it has become an essential part of any company’s drive to help women break the glass ceiling. That’s because it fulfils a number of key functions:
– it is a very practical way to tackle and change attitudes and hence behaviours of both genders
– it makes talented women more visible to a wider range of people, who influence career progression
– it tackles the self-belief issue directly and very effectively
– it encourages, legitimises and reduces the fear to have open dialogue around the gender agenda

From our research and the many gender-based mentoring programmes, which we have helped organisations design and sustain, we’ve learned quite a lot about good practice and about how to integrate mentoring with wider efforts to bring about gender equality. So here are ten top tips for leveraging coaching and mentoring to empower talented women:

1. Listen to women individually and collectively about how they want mentoring to be designed an focused. Do they want a gender specific programme or a broader one, which they are encouraged to join? Involve them in measurement and review of the programme. Do it with them, not to them.
2. Support and encourage ambition — and challenge male stereotypes of what ambition looks like. Mentoring typically results in increased self-belief amongst women mentees. Incorporate into training and programme expectations a clear concentration on ways to manage and enhance self-belief.
3. Use mentoring conversations to identify other hidden barriers to female advancement, such as expectations around work-life balance
4. Ensure coaching and mentoring have sufficient support — initial training, accredited programme coordinators, peer support groups, supervision and so on. Have a process to enable and support women, who want to start a mentoring programme for a specific group, to do so
5. Encourage women to become role models of effective leadership, without adopting stereotypical male leadership behaviours and attitudes. Where some female leaders have “pulled the ladder up behind them”, attempt to understand and perhaps change their motivations
6. Emphasise two-way, cross-gender learning — use this specifically to change mindsets for both genders
7. Use mentoring to facilitate cross-functional transfers, so more women have track records that cover wide areas of the business. Use their experience to understand how people typically gain track record and where gender bias may arise.
8. Gain top management sponsors, who walk the talk of leveraging diversity — people, who want and go out of their way to understand and address the issues
9. Legitimise the identity (brand) of the female leader — in the minds of all employees, including women themselves. Publicise how mentoring has helped individual women in their careers — and what their mentors (of either gender) have learned and achieved
10. Use gender-based mentoring as the lever to promote diversity mentoring generally. For many managers, mentoring a woman from the same culture or background as themselves is a stepping stone to more challenging mentoring relationships with people from radically different cultures.

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