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
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.