Developing Women Leaders Through Mentoring
Being one of the boys is not the only way to make your voice
heard at work...but it helps. Dr Carole Elliott, lecturer at Hull University
Business School, takes a look at the uphill struggle to women’s leadership and
says it’s time for change.
Karren Brady – successful business woman and Lord Sugar’s new right hand judge on the Apprentice, civil liberties campaigner and leader of Liberty, Shami Chakrabati, International Monetary Fund chief, Christine Lagarde. All women, all leaders. So with these roles models why are there so few women in senior leadership roles across the globe?
Research into women and leadership offers a contradictory and confusing picture. Although the media celebrates female leadership, highlighting powerful role models such as lingerie entrepreneur Michelle Mone, it is also happy to expose our inability to succeed.
The number of women board directors reached a three year plateau last year,
standing at just 12.5%, according to a survey of UK FTSE 100 companies On a
global level, 38% of businesses do not have any women in senior management
roles, a figure which has remained unchanged since 2004.
And despite the cited advantages of ‘female characteristics’, such as creativity, highly-developed communication skills along with the ability to multi-task, the day-to-day experiences of women at work show that leadership is still dominated by male norms and values.
Surprising perhaps when more women than ever are succeeding in managerial roles and graduating from higher education. Recent research into women’s experiences has helped to explain why this continues to be the case and the changes that are a must in the development of women leaders.
Networking and the development of social capital is crucial to career advancement for both men and women. With so many business networking sites – from the generalist sites of LinkedIn and Ecademy to the more specific such as Forward Ladies and the CSR Network – as well as face-to-face networks, it is an inevitable form of business interaction.
So, essential to career development but viewed differently by the sexes.
One recent study shows that the male leaders interviewed saw networking as a political strategy to career advancement, while in contrast women were more likely to view networking as a way of developing supportive relationships and a forum in which they could share experiences.
The question follows, does this
suggest men are more adept at career enhancing networking or do they simply
have different aims and objectives?
Developing contacts and networking can be challenging for anyone at any level, but women seem to face particular barriers. Even without the male/female divide in terms of views and expected outcomes, the dominance of men in networking situations often makes it hard for women to access social capital. Many women admit to feeling uncomfortable as the ‘outsider’, leading to exclusion and a feeling that they don’t belong.
But women are far from incapable and it is obvious that, once aware of the potential barriers, there are many tactics that can be used to redress the balance.
Altering their work persona is one extreme. Being ‘one of the boys’, by taking on more male characteristics, makes it easier for women to fit into the male framework.
By artificially maintaining the status quo, women have the opportunity to be part of an existing influential group, particularly where business decisions are made in the pub or on the golf course.
So what about those who don’t want to change? How do they access networks and
build meaningful social capital in their own way?
Sponsorship from those already in leadership roles and therefore inside influential networks is vital while striving for equality. Interviews with women leaders show that they have an active desire to use their position to encourage women with promise (but stuck in junior positions) to achieve more in their career.
If you are lucky, this encouragement may lead to career mentoring - invaluable in helping to develop social capital and instil confidence. According to one academic study, aspiring leaders who have been mentored adopt a greater self-belief in their abilities to lead. However, due to a dearth of women at the top, the number of mentors available does not match demand. Maybe that’s why successful female personalities in the media –Michelle Mone, the Karren Brady - become inspirational figures for so many.
To counteract male dominance at work, many women-only networking groups have been developed internationally. But this can be seen as a double-edged sword – creating a more supportive and sharing environment but also being seen as having less influence because they don’t include men who typically hold the most senior positions.
There is a history of supporting female-only mentoring and e-mentoring projects at Hull University Business School, enabling women professionals to develop their careers through a programme involving taught courses, mentoring and coaching. The school’s EMPATHY Edge mentoring project in particular paired 122 women with successful female leaders, resulting in enhanced employment prospects and careers of participants.
Women’s methods of learning leadership are historically different to men’s.
By updating the ways in which we teach leadership to women, we will be developing the women leaders of the future before they hit the glass ceiling and changing the shape of senior management teams.
And if we continue to let gender fly below the radar of leadership development? We will have to hope that Karren Brady and Michelle Mone aren’t planning on early retirement.
This is a guest post by Hull University Business School academic Dr Carole Elliott, who focuses on women in leadership. Her research has looked extensively at inspirational women from across the spectrum of organisations. More recently she has been looking into networking and the different stances that women and men take and the sponsorship of women by others
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