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Using mentoring to combat bias

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 07 Mar 2022

Workplace mentoring schemes are well established as a tool to support career development. And with International Women’s Day on 8 March, we focus on their role in overcoming gender bias.

Encouraging employees to form professional friendships through mentoring programmes can open the eyes of business leaders and managers to the challenges that women face in their day-to-day working lives, experts say.

A trend towards reciprocal mentoring schemes can help those in leadership positions understand the lived experiences of women in the workplace and also opens their eyes to the positive attributes women possess but are less likely to make a fanfare about than their male counterparts. 

“As well as opening the doors to opportunities and boosting confidence, a well-designed mentoring scheme can also cultivate insightful conversations around the real-life issues and challenges faced by women in the workplace,” says Salma Shah, author of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging in Coaching. It offers a compelling opportunity to explore and surface biases in what are often still male-dominated work environments.” 

By helping women to progress, mentoring programmes could also play their part in addressing the well-documented dearth of women at senior levels in business. Only one in three leadership roles and only a quarter of all executive committee job titles are held by women, according to the recently-published FTSE Women Leaders Review

Alison Ring, Director of Public Sector and Tax at ICAEW, is currently a mentor to three women on a Civil Service mentoring programme for female mentees called Crossing Thresholds. Ring admits that it’s easy to overlook the everyday struggles that female mentees encounter. Approaching mentoring as a two-way learning experience has allowed her to ponder some challenging issues and situations, and in extreme cases be a good ally to someone on the receiving end of discriminatory behaviour. 

“Everyone benefits,” Ring says. “There is a perception that it’s about the mentor giving to the mentee, but it’s very much a two-way process that can help forge better understanding of different perspectives and ultimately it can be a force for good in overcoming bias.” 

“This isn’t about trying to be woke, but it’s about having awareness,” Ring says. Exposure to different perspectives can make you a more empathic leader and manager. “We all have inherent bias and mentoring can help to open your eyes to it. You don’t have to agree with them but it’s about having conversations so you can understand where they’re coming from,” Ring adds.

Contrary to popular belief, mentoring schemes don’t necessarily need to be about promotion, Ring says. “It can be to understand what mentees want from work, it can simply be about getting more satisfaction in your job, or helping work through a specific issue such as relationship building or better team cohesion.”

While the gender of mentors doesn’t necessarily matter, a good relationship is essential for mentoring to be beneficial. “For mentees, it’s important that you see qualities in your mentor that you can relate to and they, conversely, understand what you’re striving to achieve,” Ring says.

Mentoring presents a support system to discuss and elevate issues that stand in the way of an inclusive workplace. Trust is fundamental if honest conversations about potentially sensitive issues are to bear fruit – whether that be occasions when employees have felt talked over, passed over, or left out in projects and meetings, or have feelings of tokenism on teams.

Graham Dale, ICAEW’s Head of Public Affairs and SRP, said: “Mentoring is helpful for both parties. It works best when expectations are clear, and is a great way to find out how others experience the workplace, and wrestle with challenges. Even the more experienced colleague will benefit by listening and talking.”

Mentoring for female success

1 Define the problem and objective

Before you implement any programme, crunch the data and analyse the employee life cycle to understand the cultural, procedural and behavioural practices that underlie gender bias and see where gender bias is having the most significant impact. 

2 Build a broader plan to address gender bias

Mentoring has to be part of a wider inclusion programme focusing on processes that enable female career progression, shift attitudes and create inclusive habits.

3 Think ‘reciprocal’ not ‘reverse’ mentoring

Reciprocal mentoring is about having two mentees who both benefit from the relationship. It is based on a ‘peer-to-peer’ style interaction where both parties learn and between them create solutions as understanding increases.

4 Choose and partner the right people

Engage those first who have the right motivations to engage with the mentoring relationship. Once the culture starts to evolve, it will be easier to engage others.

5 Create a feedback loop 

As well as benefits to the individuals in each relationship, a feedback loop allows mentees to share ideas for organisation-wide solutions that could benefit female career progression.

Helen May is the founder of diversity and inclusion consultancy Belonging@Work and author of Everyone Included: Improve Belonging, Diversity & Inclusion in Your Team.

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