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A Facilitated Career: Mentor or Kinsman?

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Thu Mar 31 2016

A Facilitated Career: Mentor or Kinsman?
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The HRD study by Jouhrarah M. Abalkhalib and Barbara Allana presents some compelling twists in how Saudi Arabian women overcome their social networking obstacles. The researchers address mentoring and networking opportunities for women managers in Saudi Arabia, as compared to their counterparts in the United Kingdom. This summary provides important takeaways for HRD and OD practitioners. While all managers worldwide need access to effective mentoring and support networks, research consistently highlights concerns and issues faced by women in professional roles who lack the same access and exposure that is institutionally and socially provided to men. As Hofstede’s invaluable GLOBE (Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness) study and others have pointed out, the sociocultural and familial/religious norms in our societies dictate the type of mentoring and networking available to women.

However, in Saudi Arabia, even though their culture inhibits traditional types of professional social networks for women, women use their creativity, ingenuity, and persistence to approach these challenges. Let’s take a look at each of these takeaways.

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We Need Effective Mentoring and Networking Opportunities

“Social capital” represents the connections and informal resources that people rely on to improve performance and develop careers. Social capital provides emotional support and greater visibility, esteem among peers and job satisfaction. Think about it: your own social capital grows as you attend meetings and conferences and informally connect with people whose work or career paths you admire. Those individuals—male or female—represent potential mentors, guides who can offer coaching, training, and even protection when needed. Unfortunately, this study shows that while women need support from male role models (perhaps more so from female examples)l, the Western context differs significantly from the constraints faced by Arab professional women.

According to the study, due to strict religious and cultural norms, Arab women are isolated from male colleagues who control access to information in their organizations. Arab professional women, therefore, rely on their own feminine networks, often tied to masculine ones, and on their own male relations who may provide the needed information and intervene (at the man’s discretion) on the woman’s behalf.

Takeaway: this unique study emphasizes a dire need for organizationally supported and carefully managed mentoring programs for women that are culturally appropriate in Arab business environments.

Lockdown: The Frightening Impact of Cultural Norms

In Saudi Arabia, (where 28 of the 44 women who participated in the study live and work), the concepts of mentoring and networking are conceptualized very differently. Abalkhail and Allen examined the experiences of these 44 through in-depth interviews. They found the women to be highly educated, experienced professionals, leaders in their corporate and academic institutions. Yet, these women had often had no mentors at all, as they are the first generation of women in leadership and often had limited access to male networks. Instead, study participants have relied on career facilitation by male guardians: father, uncle, spouse, or brother.

Takeaway: while this differs radically from the Western contextual model, the efficacy of the “facilitated career” approach is may be strategically used as a culturally appropriate mentoring model. This approach will need more outcome studies to show whether it is effective.

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Don’t Underestimate Her

The Arabian women in the United Kingdom took advantage of mentoring and networking opportunities at their discretion. (“It’s there if you want it.”) The Saudi Arabian study participants revealed in their interviews a level of persistence and ingenuity in getting around professional obstacles, and a willingness to activate feminine networks or male guardians to ensure that their voices are heard, and that they receive equity.

“No” means “try again.” And while jumping through these professional hoops seems sexist and exhausting to Western sensibilities, it certainly builds agility and a set of discreet social networks that lead to senior leadership roles.

Takeaway: Saudi Arabian culture reflects social and familial collectivism, high power distance, and a high degree of self and group protective behavior. Still, this leaves a large “white space” opportunity for HRD to develop and introduce a context-appropriate, effective model of mentoring by creating personal social networks that serve all professionals.

Taylor and Francis is offering access to the article for free for a limited time.

Reference: J. Abalkhail and B. Allan, “Women’s career advancement: mentoring and networking in Saudi Arabia and the UK,” Human Resource Development International, vol.18, no.2, pp.153-168.

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Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series of articles highlighting research from the journals of the Academy of Human Resource Development (AHRD). In partnership with ATD, AHRD is committed to sharing useful research with the practitioner community

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