Mentoring as a Pathway to More Equitable Organizations
January is Mentoring Month across Canada, presenting the opportunity for leaders at all levels to reflect on the impact of mentorship in their organizations.
Through my work at Accelerate Her Future, a career accelerator for Black, Indigenous, and racialized women (BIWoC), pursuing early-careers in business and tech, I’ve been reflecting deeply on one question: How can mentorship have the power to transform organizational culture and offer a pathway to creating more equitable organizations for women? This question matters to me as a racialized woman, changemaker and a researcher whose work over the last ten years has centred on racialized identities and equity and inclusion in the workplace through postcolonial and intersectional lenses.
While women are experiencing greater career progress, they continue to grapple with systemic barriers and workplace cultures that don’t fully cultivate a sense of belonging. This is especially true for BIWoC.
Women’s Experiences with Mentorship in the Workplace
Women continue to face inequities in workplaces exacerbated by the pandemic. A recent national study by Diversity Institute illustrates a persistent gender gap in Canada’s corporate leadership across eight cities. An intersectional lens shows that “in Toronto, non-racialized women outnumber racialized women by a ratio of 7:1 in board positions across all sectors”, a disparity that exists in varying degrees across the country.
While the benefits of mentoring are clear in helping mentees advance, access to influential networks is a critical barrier for women and racialized groups. Research shows that individuals who look and sound like the dominant culture have greater access to mentoring and sponsoring relationships as well as informal networks within organizations.
According to Leanin.org, women receive less support from managers and have less access to influential networks. This gap is most persistent for BIWoC, 60% of whom report never having had an informal interaction with a senior leader. As a result, BIWoC tend to have mentors at lower levels with less power and influence. Giscombe has explored mentorship experiences of women of colour citing a Catalyst study that found 62% of those with mentors indicated the lack of influential mentors and sponsors as a barrier to advancement compared to 39% of White women.
Sponsorship as an Extension of Mentorship is Critical for BIWoC
Mentoring programs can provide critical access to power structures. According to a 2016 HRB study, formal mentoring programs that focused on racialized populations boosted advancement and representation in leadership positions which are critical for shifting power imbalances that have historically led to exclusion.
One of the more powerful models I’ve come across is by Herminia Ibarra who provides a robust continuum model that positions sponsorship as an extension of mentorship. At one end lies classic mentorship as a private and more passive approach to support, advice, and coaching a mentee. On the other end lies classic sponsorship as public and active advocacy for promotion and advancement of a mentee. In between these points lies a developmental journey toward more active relationships (see Ibarra’s graphic visual).
Ibarra’s model normalizes active sponsorship and intentional advocacy behaviours as critical, and can be greatly enhanced by considering intersectionality, anti-racism and the mentor and mentee dynamic as part of this journey, particularly within the context of advancing BIWoC into leadership.
Reconceptualize Mentoring toward Greater Equity
- Mentoring programs with a gender-first approach miss the opportunity to explore the dynamic between coexisting identities and connected systems of oppression, particularly at the intersection of gender and race/ethnicity. Mentoring programs that embed an intersectional approach recognize that women’s experiences are not monolithic. At Accelerate Her Future, we’ve placed who we serve at the centre of our program design, by co-creating with and for BIWoC. Taking time to better understand needs and how women’s identities interact in different ways to form experiences of inequity and exclusion, can help design more inclusive programs that can have greater impact. Creating feedback loops after the mentoring relationship has ended can help better understand long-term outcomes in advancing BIWoC and fostering sponsorship behaviours while enhancing program design elements. This process is a journey, as is any kind of organizational culture transformation and change initiative.
- Mentoring across race/ethnicity must include anti-racism work. A mentor’s beliefs, assumptions, stereotypes, and biases can impact how they engage with a mentee across differences. Bhasin, Sherbin & Kennedy in their 2017 study of sponsorship behaviours in Canada found that people of colour and Indigenous peoples are more likely to receive advice from leaders on how they can “fix” the way they are perceived (i.e. deficit based assumptions made about mentee) while their White colleagues are more likely to receive impactful advocacy including for the next promotion. Mentoring across race/ethnicity must include anti-racism work and reflecting on one’s social identities, power and privilege (including White privilege). When managers and leaders are motivated to do anti-racism work, they are likely more inclined to move toward intentional advocacy of BIWoC.
- Mentoring programs must consider the mentor and mentee dynamic. Traditional structures to mentorship tend to be hierarchical and top down. At Accelerate Her Future our Fellowship Circle program embeds a reciprocal mentoring model (sometimes referred to as co-mentoring) that focuses on the whole person. Psychological safety and trust are key elements in the development of a reciprocal mentoring relationship where mentees can engage in more genuine interactions and feel they can safely share their experiences. In this space both mentors and mentees are invited to enter a collaborative relationship in sharing power along with a learning mindset. Mentees offer unique perspectives about their lived experiences, and how they are navigating career development and workplace dynamics. When mentors are also positioned as learners there is an invitation to engage with greater empathy, curiosity, humility and vulnerability. A learning orientation can enhance self-awareness about one’s biases as well as barriers faced by mentees and ways to be more impactful advocates.
Equity is ultimately about ensuring everyone has the full range of opportunities and benefits to flourish and thrive. Equity work requires courage and dedication to affect the type of changes needed to create more inclusive and just organizations and systems. Mentorship programs are a powerful pathway to creating more equitable organizational cultures, when approached and designed with intention, data-driven insight and deeper understanding of equity issues.
About Dr. Golnaz Golnaraghi
Dr. Golnaz Golnaraghi(she/her) is the Founder of Divity Group Inc. and Accelerate Her Future, one of the leading career accelerators in Canada dedicated to advancing BIWoC pursuing early-careers in business and tech. She holds an MBA from the University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business and a Doctor of Business Administration from Athabasca University with research focus on racialized identities, immigrant labour market settlement, and decolonizing diversity, equity and inclusion.
I am a woman because I do womanhood.
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