04 March 2015

This week’s Women Leaders event explored the value of mentoring in addressing gender inequality – and concluded that all kinds of people could benefit. Nehal Panchamia listened in.

More big American firms are led by a CEO named John than by a woman, according to a US think tank – a stark reminder that we haven’t overcome gender inequality in the workplace. Organisations around the world are increasingly turning to mentoring schemes to redress the balance; and this week’s Women Leaders event, run by the Institute for Government and supported by Ernst & Young, examined when and how the approach is best applied.

“Build your own personal board of advisers,” Peninah Thomson, chief executive of the Mentoring Foundation, told the lively audience. It’s not about finding the mentor, she argued, but connecting with multiple mentors from whom you can occasionally draw advice and support throughout your career. “You wouldn’t want to have only one type of person, or even one gender, on your own board,” she explained: better to have a diverse range of people who can challenge you in different ways.

Margaret Mountford

Margaret Mountford speaking at the Institute for Government event

But how do you make these connections in the first place? “Not all forms of mentoring have to be structured,” Margaret Mountford, former corporate finance partner in City law firm Herbert Smith and ‘Apprentice’ star, reminded the audience. Clare Moriarty, a director general in the Department for Transport, also drew a distinction between more formal “capital M” mentoring and other forms which essentially come down to a bit of “chemistry” and “opportunism”. Seek out the people who inspire you, they recommended, and see if they’re willing to grab a coffee: informal, ad hoc meetings can help snowball your connections, and are often as valuable as more organised, long-term relationships.

Mentoring isn’t about having a “cosy chat”, however. “Frankness, constructive challenge, and calling things how they are” is critical to “helping people find their path”, Thomson explained. And Moriarty argued that “it’s all about choices”: a good mentor will seek to understand where you’re coming from, and provide you with the space and permission to reflect on your choices and consider what might work best for you at different points in your career.

Does this mean that only those who’ve worn the same shoes as you can make good mentors? “It is a lot easier to help somebody understand what they’re going through if you can relate to what they’re doing,” Moriarty admitted. Because some of the barriers people face relate to ethnicity or culture, it can be valuable to have a mentor of a similar race or background. But given the shortage of black and minority ethnic (BME) people – of either sex – in senior leadership positions, minorities can find it hard to find relevant role models; certainly, the few who’ve risen to the top are in high demand.

However, not everyone needs a mentor, Mountford reminded us. Plenty of people have made it to the top without one – including Mountford herself. In response, some audience members raised fears that seeking a mentor could be seen as a sign of weakness, and reflect a misplaced belief that all the barriers to professional advancement are internal rather than external. But it was clear from the reactions of our panel that mentoring, in all its forms, should be seen as a valuable way of supporting people to make the right choices at the right time – whatever their sex, culture or ethnicity.