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Why Mentoring Women in the Workplace Spurs Greater Innovation

Thursday, December 7, 2017

I spent the first half of my career working abroad, and I saw first-hand the effects of gender diversity in the workforce. While working with microfinance institutions to help local businesses grow, I noticed vast differences in the quality of life across societies around the world. While there are many reasons for these fluctuations, I noticed a common theme: economies that embraced gender diversity in their labor force experienced more innovation, development, and ultimately higher quality of life. More specifically, economies that tapped into the full potential of their workforce by embracing women were able to develop at a much faster rate than economies using only half of their labor force—creating obstacles for women to enter and grow in leadership positions.

These observations aren’t just anecdotal. Research highlighted in The Economist has found that “women have contributed more to global GDP growth than have either new technology or the giants, China and India.” And this isn’t a singular study. More and more, research points to the immense impact gender parity can have on overall revenue creation.

More Women in Leadership Leads to Better Business Results

Enabling women to advance in the workplace isn’t just about equality. It also means better business. Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to have financial returns above industry averages. And that’s not the only improvement. Companies with the most women on their boards of directors have 16 percent higher return on sales than those with the least number of women. This isn’t a fluke. Research shows when women make up the majority of a team, the collective intelligence of the group rises above average. This leads to better collaboration, innovation, and greater social perceptiveness.

Industry leaders have taken note and are initiating strong measures to elevate women in their organizations. Failing to address gender disparity puts organizations at risk of falling behind in the heated talent war. Not only could they lose out on increasing intelligence and business success, but they also risk losing top talent from their pipeline.

In order for growing and established countries and companies to continue to thrive, the next phase of development requires not only engaging more women in the labor force, but also equipping women to obtain and excel in more leadership positions.

The Problem Isn’t Participation, It’s Representation

In the last decade, women have made great strides in workforce participation. In the United States alone, women make up 47 percent of all workers. But even with growth in numbers, they still hold a mere 29 percent of VP roles. And only 19 percent of C-suite positions. It’s not for a lack of trying. McKinsey and Company found that women and men stay at their respective companies and ask for promotions at similar rates, but women fall behind earlier and continue to lose ground, usually at the initial stage of promotion into management. This is often because they have few champions, advisors, or managers they can turn to for advice on how to advance.

As the modern workforce evolves, it’s critical for business to become more competitive and diverse. With more women on teams and in C-suite positions, companies can achieve greater innovation over time. But first, companies have to initiate the right programs and development to elevate women to the next level.


Mentoring Equips Women to Progress Through the Talent Pipeline

Mentoring is an ideal strategy to enable skill development and build networks, increasing employee engagement and retention. But informal mentorship isn’t enough. It can be hard for women to tap into, especially with male-dominated work cultures. Women can easily find themselves adrift without the “inside” knowledge that would empower them to be most effective. With a formal mentoring program, there are fewer feelings of isolation. If more women find their way into senior leadership, there is less pressure on individual women to be models for their entire gender. Thus, inspiring more women to pursue leadership roles and advancements.

This is why 71 percent of Fortune 500 companies have formal mentoring programs. Be careful though. A “check the box” mentoring program only gets you halfway. A program that is setup and left to its own devices will not get the job done, and could leave women employees even more unsatisfied in the workplace. Successful programs focus on engaging participants beyond simply matching mentors and mentees and scheduling their first conversations. It has to be something the entire organization, especially leadership, embraces. Without this commitment, programs will have a hard time launching, running, and being properly measured.

Successful mentoring programs impart a feeling of inclusivity that can help employees, particularly women, feel more connected and engaged with their place of employment. In fact, a study in the Academy of Management Journal found career development for women is tied more to attachment and relationships, whereas career development for men equates to increased autonomy and separation from others. Mentoring allows women to build networks that otherwise might not have been readily available to them.

Further, navigating the career lattice requires a champion to help identify the right steps and advisors to attain a promotion. Women can find it difficult to find a champion, which often leads to a sense of frustration, underutilization of skills, or even dropping out of the labor force altogether. Instead, mentoring can provide a network that can open doors, provide guidance, and connect women to future opportunities.


How Management Can Help

Change doesn’t happen overnight. But managers and leaders can take action now to better enable the women on their teams to achieve growth, obtain promotion, and deliver strong business returns.

  • Advocate for mentoring: Become an ambassador for mentoring within your organization. Whether you have the influence to bring a formal program to your workplace or can only go as far as promoting the act of mentoring, make the benefits of mentoring known to those in your organization.
  • Have an executive sponsor: Workplace culture is shaped by behavior at the top. If promoting women is a priority for the business, it is important to be the executive (or find an executive) who can lead the charge, and form a coalition to champion the cause. Without an executive sponsor, it can be difficult to instill meaningful change for women in your business. Participating in mentoring shows your employees that this is truly important to you and the organization.
  • Form a task force: Work with other key stakeholders to tackle mentoring as a top initiative for your company and get more leadership buy-in. Instilling change is not easy, so bringing like-minded individuals together will increase the chance of success.
  • Solicit feedback: When trying to make the workplace more conducive to women employees thriving, be sure to ask women what changes, programs, or policies they think would make progress easier. While not all of these things will be in your control, you can share the feedback with others in hopes of making organizational improvements. Soliciting feedback from your target audience also tends to increase their buy-in for the initiative going forward.
  • Broaden new roles and projects: Review the way you describe new roles or projects for your team. Make sure you’re depicting them in a way that encourages women employees to apply—rather than staying away for fear their experience won’t meet the requirements. Think highlighting cognitive skills over literal experience in the descriptions. The more diverse your team, the more likely you are to have better ideas, stronger collaboration, and greater exposure to others.
  • Acknowledge successes: Make sure to highlight employee achievements in a similar light for males and females. Acknowledgement, especially of those participating in mentoring, improves employee engagement and creates a greater likelihood of retention.

There is ample proof that economies fall behind when they fail to tap into their full labor force, while those that encourage total participation are more innovative and develop faster. Companies see this and are responding to an increasingly competitive labor market by tapping into the underserved talent pool. Is yours?

With the help of formal mentoring programs, companies can improve women’s representation in leadership. The right steps, both big and small, can embolden more women to grow within organizations, leading to greater innovation, revenue, and ultimately a higher quality of life for all.</p>

About the Author

Seena Mortazavi is the CEO of Chronus, the leader in mentoring software. As a passionate executive focused on leveraging the power of mentoring, he works to drive engagement, retention, and development for some of the world’s largest organizations. Under Seena's leadership, Chronus has created impactful mentoring relationships for over 1.5 million users in more than 200 countries.

Prior to Chronus, Seena spent most of his career at the intersection of IT and financial services. He worked directly with CEOs and business owners to design, launch, and grow financial products across a network of institutions. In addition to a BA in Economics and Computer Science from the University of Western Ontario and an MA from the University of Toronto, Seena completed his MBA from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.

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