The slow, cautious return to the office is resurfacing old grievances when it comes to the workplace. Though issues like bias, inequality, and microaggressions didn’t disappear during the pandemic, some employees—especially women of color—found reprieve in the comfort of their homes from some of the racial and gender biases of the working world.
The comfort has been so great that Future Forum’s Remote Employee Experience Index of knowledge workers found that 97 percent of Black respondents preferred to maintain a hybrid or full-time remote working model. This staggering number is explained through reduced levels of code-switching, discrimination, and tokenism in the new remote or hybrid workplace. Unfortunately, gender bias isn’t limited to misogynistic retorts or inequitable pay practices. It also rears its head in the form of an organization’s reaction to women employees’ need for more flexible schedules and work hours, largely due to the increased parenting roles and personal responsibilities that have risen during the pandemic.
In fact, many women dropped out of or minimized their role in the workforce during the pandemic. Participation levels have yet to rebound fully. If this trend continues, it could affect wages of men and women long-term. An Akron University economist found that “every 10 percent increase in women working is associated with a 5 percent increase in wages for all workers as overall labor force productivity increases.” Building the right structures and support for women to return to work in the manner that best enables them is crucial for leading organizations to continue thriving.
Why We Should Mentor WomenAt its core, mentoring provides the opportunity for career growth, network expansion, and learning development. Additionally, mentoring in the workplace prompts conversations and relationships that can break down barriers and remove stigmas or biases. This can be between men and women or even women and other women. While 67 percent of women rate mentorship as highly important in career advancement, 63 percent report they’ve never had a mentor.
Mentoring can also play a large role in company culture, which we know dictates workplace interactions and behaviors. Author Karen Jaw-Madson says, “Culture communicates the boundaries of what is acceptable and not acceptable and manifests itself in how people behave, interact, react, and perceive reality. Culture is created, reinforced, and experienced by people.”
Therefore, mentoring’s ability to engage, advance, and support female employees (virtually and in person) can lead to a more inclusive workplace of belonging. Here are three ways that can be accomplished.
Builds Empathetic Networks
Mentoring can provide a place for women to discuss professional development or personal anguish. It is no longer just a space for work talk. After the last year and a half, it can’t afford to be. It has become an avenue for mental health check-ins and workplace review.
Mentoring relationships have opened up avenues for discussion of workplace treatment of women. These conversations allow co-workers to share times when they’ve felt talked over, passed over, or left out in projects and meetings. Mentoring relationships also build trust between colleagues, which can help to identify obstacles in the workplace and ways to pursue change. These candid, sensitive conversations can also awaken employees to experiences outside their own, elevating some of the challenges certain employees face compared to others.
Whether it’s feelings of tokenism on teams or the lack of on-ramps and off-ramps for women as they take time to care for their families or mental health, mentoring presents a support system to discuss and elevate issues that stand in the way of an inclusive workplace.
This new hybrid workplace is built on the need for flexibility, a need that has been growing long before everyone was called to work from home. Mentoring’s ability to be in person and virtual allows for more people to participate despite their schedules or locations.
With the growing responsibilities of women at home and at work, providing flexibility is key to breaking down the barrier to participation. Rather than forcing them to adhere to the events, gatherings, and schedules of office networking that at times feel uncomfortable and geared toward those with better informal networks and connections, mentoring’s ability to occur via telephone, video call, direct message, or over coffee allows women to set a schedule that accommodates their other responsibilities.
Whether it’s mentoring circles for women to discuss shared experiences or reverse mentoring so women can meet with senior leaders to showcase new company innovations or illustrate challenges women face in joining the leadership pipeline, mentoring builds flexibility in format and function to elevate participation and ease biases moving forward.
Establishes Measured Accountability
When looking to minimize bias and improve inclusion and engagement in the workplace, it’s important to establish a measure of accountability. Consider such questions as these: Is an organization making progress on inclusion metrics? If so, how far does it still need to go? Mentoring presents the opportunity to set goals and measure engagement, retention, and advancement of participants against the current benchmarks of the organization. It can also be a vehicle for check-ins about satisfaction and soliciting feedback to understand where improvements still need to be made.
As companies work to combat gender bias, mentoring can provide women with opportunities for growth that equate to advancement and better integration in workplace culture. It provides a prime strategy through which to showcase measurement and progress in these areas. Concrete evidence of improvement is important to illustrate an organization’s commitment to its female workforce, the company as a whole, and a more inclusive future.
The emerging hybrid workplace should be a safe place for employees to bring their full selves to, whether remote or in person. While removing bias and antiquated expectations of employees might take time, companies can start today in building new strategies and tactics that enable women to return to a workforce that welcomes them and emboldens them to succeed.