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Most people can identify their favorite schoolteacher — the one who established a personal bond, provided enduring lessons inside and outside the classroom, and perhaps even helped set a direction for future endeavors and career pursuits. Relationships like that are no less valuable in the career world, but instead of report cards and homework assignments, employees seek to forge paths to leadership positions through skills development, hard work and relationship building. And one of the primary drivers is the process of mentoring — finding someone who can help nurture growth, forge alliances and encourage advancement to new levels of responsibility and success. As the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately disrupted female career paths, establishing mentoring relationships has become increasingly critical for women to succeed in a transformed work environment, experts say. “Closing the gender gap is imperative for organizations to perform at the highest caliber, and mentoring is the ideal strategy to enable skill development and build networks, increasing employee engagement and retention,” national mentoring firm Chronus indicated in their report, “Mentoring: Emboldening Women in the Workplace.” “Modern mentoring is a collection of new uses and formats of mentoring adapted for the modern workforce that enables employees to drive their own development while creating a highly scalable model for organizations,” the report added. “Whether it’s mentoring circles, flash mentoring, or high potential mentoring, modern mentoring imparts a feeling of inclusivity that can help employees, especially women, feel more connected and engaged with their place of employment.” Pat Mitchell, the first female president of CNN Productions and PBS, also discussed the importance of mentoring women in her March 2020 TED Talk, “How to Mentor and Support Other Women — And Help Them Succeed.” “As I tell the organizations with which I consult on the role of women in business, I believe mentoring is one of the strategies that can close the gender gap in leadership in this country and around the world,” Ms. Mitchell said. “Mentoring is one lever we can activate to advance more women in their work, to help them gain access to capital and economic opportunities they might otherwise miss, and to be better prepared for opportunities … I believe that one of the responsibilities of being a woman who is committed to working toward a more just world is being willing to be a mentor when and where needed. All of us — mentees and mentors — are dangerous women in the making, or already boldly declared to be in the sisterhood. We need the support of each other at a fundamental level that goes beyond mentoring.” Yet despite a recognized need, mentoring programs are MIA at many employers. Researchers at Olivet Nazarene University surveyed 3,000 people about professional mentor-mentee relationships and found that although 76% of people think mentors are important, only 37% currently have one, and just 56% have ever had one. And according to the Chronus report, while 67% of women rated mentorship as highly important in career advancement, 63% reported they’ve never had a mentor. Bottom-line results Mentoring is not just a trendy feel-good concept, either. Bringing more women into positions of leadership, particularly through mentoring programs, can have a real impact on the bottom line. Chronus reports that according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, reaching gender parity in labor-force participation rates alone could increase the global GDP in developed countries by 12% over the next 20 years — equating to more than $12 trillion. “This sum might never be realized though if action to support gender diversity is not taken,” the Chronus report adds. “Reaching gender parity in the workplace is no longer just an equality issue, it’s an economic one.” Why do mentoring and women make such a good pair? A study in the Academy of Management Journal found that career development for women is tied more to attachment and relationships, whereas career development for men means increased autonomy and separation from others. This makes mentoring within small groups or one-on-one sessions perfect for women, fostering conversations and relationships, the study reported. Forms vary; results matter So, what do mentoring programs look like? There’s no single answer, experts say. “I think the most important thing for companies and individuals to remember is that mentoring starts as a relationship,” said Michelle Williams, assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship and diversity, equity, and inclusion faculty fellow in the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa. “So, a formal program that assigns mentors sometimes works. But having opportunities for people to get together and form those relationships where they can be mentored — that’s critical.” Mentor-mentee relationships also don’t have to work exclusively from the top-down, Ms. Williams said. “For the mentees, I always suggest bringing something to the table — setting up coffees or virtual coffees with different people in your organization can enhance your career. But also, think of the potential for reverse mentoring,” she noted. “There’s a lot of technology, a lot of social media, a lot of changes in the workplace, so you should see mentoring as a mutual relationship that’s beneficial on both sides. I know a lot of companies are asking their senior executives if they have a reverse mentor, and the executives are expected to be able to point to someone and say they talk with this person regularly to get insights from a different perspective.” ‘Meet them where they are’ Beth Livingston, assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship at the Tippie College of Business and faculty director of the Dore Emerging Women Leaders Program at the University of Iowa, also noted that both formal and informal mentoring programs can achieve desired goals of diversity, inclusion and breadth of perspective. “Informal mentoring is often more effective, but it can also be more difficult to develop,” Ms. Livingston said. “It’s one reason why you have formal programs because sometimes people don’t do the things that they need to do, and people don’t get developed. The Dore Emerging Leaders Program (for first year direct admit students to Tippie) is more of a formal program, but it’s built on informal interactions. My goal is to get to know them and listen to them to develop these individual relationships, to meet them where they are. It’s difficult to standardize mentoring programs because everyone is starting from different places. With any sort of leadership approach, the more individualized you can make it, the more likely it is to be successful for the widest variety of people, and I think that’s true for mentoring as well.” Many point to effective mentoring programs as key to overcoming the “broken rung” syndrome, which holds that the biggest career obstacle for women occurs at one of the very first steps on the corporate ladder — the initial promotion to management. “The ‘broken rung’ at the bottom of the corporate ladder also keeps women from reaching the top of the ladder,” Forbes magazine wrote after an October 2019 study conducted by McKinsey and LeanIn.org. The study, which surveyed 329 companies and questioned more than 68,500 employees, found that for every 100 men promoted or hired at the manager level, only 72 women were hired or promoted to manager. “Since fewer women are promoted to junior management, there are fewer women in the pipeline when it comes time to choose employees for senior management roles,” the report added. “As a result, the number of women decreases at every subsequent management level.” From an employer’s perspective, the issue can manifest in differing expectations for male and female employees, Ms. Williams said. “Women are often asked to do, and agree to do, a lot of non-promotable tasks,” she said. “They get to a certain level, or they’re asked to be on a lot of committees or organize the office Christmas party, and people will say, ‘you are so great, you’re such a team player.’ But all that takes away time from the mission-critical things that they’re doing for the organization. If you’re asking your women to do more than men in those areas, and if these things aren’t rotating, that can certainly create a broken rung.” Moving past implicit theories Preconceptions can hinder effective mentoring programs as well, Ms. Livingston said. “We still have implicit theories of leadership,” she noted. “When we close our eyes and we think of a leader, usually the person that pops up in our head is not only a man, but a certain type of man, a man who is dominant and loud and directive and authoritative. Unfortunately, that’s a pervasive norm, and when I’m mentoring young women, I try to break that down. Leaders can look like lots of different things. There is no one right way to be a leader. And chances are, whatever your constellation of traits and attributes, you absolutely can lead with those traits and attributes. My goal is to have them see themselves as leaders so that they don’t select themselves out of leadership because they feel they don’t fit this implicit norm of what a leader should be.” Ms. Livingston said mentoring programs for women hit significant roadblocks over the past year as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic deepened. “For the women whose mentoring was stalled, I often saw they already had strained relationships where they couldn’t authentically share,” she said. “It wasn’t inclusive. Women whose mentorship continue to pace had leaders who listened. I think the pandemic has really widened the divide between people that have mentors and people who didn’t, and I think that has disproportionately affected women.” Many mentorships have become more casual and virtual as well, Ms. Williams said. “Many companies are offering informal meetups, where senior and junior people are putting their name in a hat and saying, ‘I’d love to show up on Friday for an elevator conversation or (join) random breakout rooms,’” she said. “I think companies themselves are coming up with innovations, but it does put more onus on individuals for encouraging their organizations to reach out. We’re also seeing ERG’s (employee resource groups) becoming more active in that matchmaking process, providing more time to celebrate and discuss some of the things that are going on in the world.” Mentoring creates leaders Ms. Livingston said she tries to emphasize mentoring efforts that focus on individual potential and approaches to leadership. She described a 2019 guest lecture with Des Moines-area youth that included an exercise involving participants describing the traits of effective leaders, as compared to their own personal traits. “We found that every single one of them had traits of a leader and could lead in their own way,” she said. “You can be introverted and quiet and still lead. It was a great exercise for them to see themselves as leaders, even middle- school and high schoolers. We tried to get them to deconstruct that notion ‘if I’m not the one giving orders, I’m not a leader.’ That’s not true. Think about all the people in your life who you look up to. I think you have to be careful when it comes to developing and mentoring women. We can sometimes encourage them, whether overtly or covertly, to hide parts of themselves, to be less authentic — don’t speak in certain ways, don’t show your enthusiasm, don’t wear this or that. I’m a leader both formally and informally, and I try to be as authentic as I can while also demonstrating that I’m a better leader when I’m authentic to myself.” Ms. Livingston said she’s been contacted by business leaders struggling with mentoring and advancing women in their organizations. “They’ll say, ‘We have a woman problem,’” she said. “That’s what I typically hear. ‘Professor, we have a woman problem at our company.’ I can tell a whole lot just from that first line of the conversation. I usually say, ‘you have an organizational structure problem,’ and then we see whether they hire me to do the work after that. But I do think the pandemic has unveiled whether you are in a supportive organization and whether your manager is a good leader. I think we’ve seen those leaders who can be supportive and authentic and inclusive do very well, and the leaders who put on the trappings of leadership, they don’t know how to lead when they’re not face to face. They don’t know how to be supportive of people’s well-being because they’re play-acting at leadership. They’re not agile. They’re not able to meet their employees’ needs.” If anything, mentoring women for advancement in the workforce will become even more critical to business success than ever before, Ms. Livingston added. “I’m an optimistic person,” she said, “so I feel like it can go one of two ways. Either we’re going to see this huge glut and lose a lot of women who would otherwise be leadership material because they’ve either been overlooked or opted out because they didn’t feel they would be supported, or it’s going to cause companies to rethink what leadership means. I’ve seen a lot of divergence in that, and I hope if that will be good for leadership because people will say, ‘we need more training and get more women in leadership now because this is not working.’ That’s my hope.”