Mentoring Women Opens Doors

Gender bias, unrealistic expectations and few role models prevent many women from joining their companies’ leadership ranks. But mentoring can help.

By Danielle Braff June 12, 2023

Women who strive for corporate leadership positions often live more complicated lives than their male colleagues. Starting with struggling to find female role models they can identify with, they must then build a support network in a male-dominated world, climb a corporate ladder that favors male leaders, and balance work and family life to a greater extent than their male colleagues. 

When HR leaders enable managers to make a concerted effort to relieve those burdens and promote female leadership, they can expect to see real changes in the workplace. Women-led companies attract more women employees at all levels. Conducted in 2021, the YPO Global Chief Executive Gender Equality Survey of more than 2,000 chief executives from 106 countries found that at women-led companies, 48 percent of the workforce is female, compared to 37 percent at male-run companies. Female respondents to the survey also reported that 43 percent of their senior managers are women, versus 26 percent at male-run companies.

Clearly, HR managers who promote women leadership from the inside make a significant investment in changing the face of their business to better reflect the world at large.

In many ways, women have never had more choices and opportunities than they do today. The number of women leaders at the top is growing—albeit slowly. For years, the share of Fortune 500 companies led by female CEOs had been stuck at around 8 percent. In January 2023, for the first time in the Fortune 500 list's 68-year history, that percentage surpassed 10 percent. This year, 53 women are running Fortune 500 companies, up from 44 in 2020. However, only three of those women are people of color.

An Uneven Playing Field

The playing field is still far from level, says Viviane Paxinos, chief executive officer at AllBright, a global career networking community for women based in London. In a 2023 AllBright survey of more than 1,200 women, 83 percent of respondents reported taking on additional unpaid and unrecognized responsibilities at work at least once a month. Some women are leaving traditional workplaces in frustration and striking out on their own. “An increasing number of women do not see viable, sustainable career paths within organizations, so they are opting out and starting their own ventures,” the Allbright study says.

Only 10 percent of the women surveyed by Allbright reported satisfaction with their career progression. Among the reasons cited were unrealistic expectations, lack of leadership engagement, bias, lack of role models and unequal access to sponsorship. More than a third of respondents (38 percent) say their career progression would benefit from coaching and mentorship. That positions HR managers to play a key role in promoting leadership opportunities for women and diversifying their workforces.

Mentorship in Action

Growing up, Tonya Hallett—now 48 and the vice president of people experience and technology at Amazon—says she had never seen a woman (let alone a Black woman like herself) in a position of power in the corporate world. “I think that’s the first difficulty: access to seeing what’s possible,” Hallett says.

In high school, Hallett learned about banking, consulting and human resources, but she lacked a female role model in business. Just out of college, she took a job at General Motors, where one of her first mentors was a man who offered her access to his network. Through that network, Hallett’s contacts multiplied until she was able to meet other women in business and learn from them how to climb the corporate ladder.

“The gender bias is real, and it starts super early,” Hallett says. Race can add additional roadblocks. A study by Praxis Labs—a provider of virtual-reality-based diversity and inclusion learning—found that fewer women (63 percent) than men (71 percent) say they feel their employers provide mentorship and sponsorship opportunities, and only 49 percent of Black women say the same. Experts agree that there are few steps as effective as forming key mentorships in the quest to rise in an employer’s ranks.

Cisco, which has been ranked as one of the top workplaces in the U.S. by Fortune magazine, empowers HR to grow leadership skills in their female employees through mentorship opportunities. HR managers invite Cisco employees to join inclusive communities based on gender, ethnicity, cultural identification, sexual orientation and more. Cisco’s largest inclusive community is Women of Cisco, an international group with more than 9,000 members stretching across 69 countries. Women of Cisco offers its members personal skills development courses, mentoring, executive shadowing programs and acces to a strong network of women across the company.

“As I advanced in my career, I was lucky to have communities that supported and empowered my growth to rise to my full potential in tech,” says Aruna Ravichandran, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Webex by Cisco in San Francisco. “This includes mentors, sponsors and groups I’m involved with that inspire me to show up and be my best every day.”

HR leaders at Cisco have gone beyond offering mentorship opportunities to their female employees by reaching out to school-age girls and educating them about possible careers in business. To cultivate future women leaders, Cisco has offered the Women Rock-IT program since 2014, which exposes girls to female role models in various technology fields to inspire them to consider a career in IT. One Women Rock-It event in 2022 focused on esports and gaming, explaining to students how players could translate their skills into careers in technology. The event featured female leaders at Cisco as well as esports players, engineers and other advocates, says Ravichandran. 

Looking Ahead

Hallett, who has been at Amazon for three years, says her managers have encouraged her development as a leader by giving her the license and liberty to take action to boost women leadership within the company. Last year, Hallett hosted an empowerment conference for Amazon’s Black women leaders, being given the go-ahead to do whatever it takes to make her vision come to fruition. “They felt seen and valued,” Hallett says of the attendees. “One of the biggest messages that we left with was, ‘Go forth and do more and reach more women.’”

But even in a progressive workplace, barriers can remain. Paxinos says that although the hybrid and flexible work opportunities that the pandemic brought to many employees can help alleviate some women’s compounded work burdens, these work arrangements can also reduce women’s visibility in the workplace. HR managers can play a key role in promoting women’s career growth by working with them to identify ways they can visibly flex their leadership muscle regardless of their physical work arrangements.

“We are faced with the results of being overlooked for promotions: out of sight, out of mind,” Paxinos says. The situation can be compounded when there is a lack of visible role models, particularly among women of color, women with disabilities and neurodivergent women. Having women in positions of power who can inspire and mentor new female leaders is a powerful tool for diversifying the workforce.

“As I advanced in my career, I was lucky to have communities that supported and empowered my growth to rise to my full potential in tech,” Ravichandran says. “This includes mentors, sponsors and groups I’m involved with that inspire me to show up and be my best every day.”

Danielle Braff is a freelance writer based in Chicago.


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