Closing the Advancement Gap: The Importance of Mentors & Networking

 
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Many of us were told throughout childhood and early adulthood that success comes with hard work and perseverance. Just keep your nose to the proverbial grindstone and you will be rewarded. Talent and toil will propel you towards career achievement.

In some respects, this is very true. Unfortunately, it isn’t the whole story. 

While women have definite aspirations for advancement in the workplace, a report by McKinsey & Co. and the Lean In Foundation confirmed that “women are left behind from the get-go.” Since it also seems evident that this gender gap in achievement is not attributed to lack of ability or motivation, the question remains as to why. In many instances, the culprit appears to be a lack of mentoring and networking.

Mentoring is certainly nothing new. Yet, its importance and value should not be underestimated. Mentors provide support and guidance, especially to those just beginning their career journeys. For women, finding a mentor is all too often an elusive task…but one that is worth the effort.  In her revealing and thought-provoking book, “Where Are the Women Architects?,” Despina Stratigakos explains, “Mentoring can  make a critical difference: careers are advanced not just by ambition and sacrifice but also by having a sponsor to show you the ropes, make connections, and put your name forward for those career-enhancing opportunities.”

So, as the saying goes, what’s a girl to do? Well, for starters, look around for suitable mentors (don’t assume they will find you!) and ask. Avoid being aggressive or overly persistent, but have the courage to approach someone you have identified as having “mentor potential.”

Furthermore, do not limit yourself to only female mentors. In her article, “4 Benefits of Male Mentors for Women in Business,” Alana M. Hill points out, “it was the insight that I received from male mentors that balanced out my plate….Some of the men I worked alongside had valuable perspectives on leadership and how to advance in the company.”

Once securing a mentor, aim to meet regularly and be prepared for these meetings with questions, topics to discuss, and objectives. Remember, too, that mentoring is a two-way street. Do not just be a taker, but a giver. Give you mentor feedback as well as credit and thanks for their help and insight. Their time is valuable and their commitment is something to be recognized and appreciated.

Finally, if finding a mentor within your office or company seems impossible, then look elsewhere. Joining a professional organization or support group for women in business may lead you to just the right person.

Networking is another professional tool that should not be overlooked, or avoided, by females in the workforce.

We are all familiar with the age-old scenario of a person getting hired or promoted because he or she “knew” someone. Many will roll their eyes when hearing this, but the truth is that having an “in” can frequently make the difference in who joins the team or gets pushed up the ladder.

Networking with both colleagues and superiors can be the key to forging relationships and establishing connections in one’s profession.  As Shama Hyder, founder and CEO of Zen Media, has bluntly stated, it is “something we’ve got to do more of if we want to attempt to level the playing field.” She also cautions that women not only have fewer business-related connections than their male counterparts, but that women are also “less confident about utilizing the ones we do have….Women are often more hesitant to ask a connection for anything, often out of fear of being perceived as opportunistic, or even weak.”

Unfortunately, this can be a costly mistake and female professionals should explore various networking groups (including women-only groups) that can offer an encouraging space to explore opportunities, cultivate referrals and contact lists, sharpen communication and leadership skills, build a network of supportive colleagues, and socialize.

Networking can also help decrease feelings of isolation for women and others who may be in the minority at work. If real time and effort is invested in building genuine relationships with both male and female colleagues, it will become more acceptable for those within the network to offer and ask for advice, support, or favors. 

In the end, your career is in your hands! Grab the reins and forge ahead. Actively pursue the path that will bring you closer to where you want to be in your professional life. Embrace the tools that can make the difference, including those of mentoring and networking.

As Hyder notes, “Ask any successful professional, male or female, how they got to where they are, and chances are they had someone—or several someones—helping them along the way.” Remember the old adage, “Out of sight, out of mind.” It is critical that women are both seen and heard in order to be considered for sought-after assignments and promotions, and to achieve the success they are diligently seeking.

On a parting note, it is crucial that women do not develop amnesia once they have moved up the ladder and are in these often-coveted positions. Be the one to give back and pay it forward! Remember your own past challenges and extend a hand to those women just beginning their careers…or those striving, but struggling, to move to the next level. The support and guidance you give could make all the difference. 

 

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