“I hadn’t thought of that.”
My mentee’s words made me smile. I had given her advice that she hadn’t heard before and, in our next session, she would reveal that she had entered a competition as I had suggested.
It’s moments like these that make me very proud to be a mentor. October 27th is national mentoring day. With increased pressure on young people, entrenched gendered career expectations and complicated career paths, formal mentoring schemes for women and girls are more important than ever.
I mentor with The Girls’ Network, a charity set up by two former teachers that pairs girls from the least advantaged communities across the UK with professional women. Over the course of at least a year, mentors like myself have one-on-one semi-structured conversations with our 14-16 year old mentees about topics from career plans to CV writing and positive failure. Mentoring organisations like these have become increasingly common around the world. I started my own mentoring journey as a mentor with Strong Women, Strong Girls in the United States which pairs girls with college women and follows a curriculum drawing lessons from ‘strong women’ in history and contemporary society. I am also fortunate enough to be a mentee with the Fabian Women’s Network Mentoring Programme in which I learn from women in public life.
Mentoring can counteract the increased pressure faced by girls today. The mentors in my Girls’ Network cohort frequently discuss the impact that exams and social media are having on our mentees. Every session, the girls tell us of yet another important exam they have coming up or the pressure to look good when posting yet another picture on Snapchat. Much of our mentoring becomes about study techniques and the importance of self-care. Upsetting research has shown that more young people than ever have mental health problems with girls from the poorest backgrounds most adversely affected. The government has announced plans to combat the mental health crisis for our young people including plans to teach resilience as part of the national curriculum. For now, mentoring schemes such as those provided by The Girls’ Network already have a focus on building resilience.
Another focus of mentoring schemes is combatting gendered life expectations. Although changing, gendered career expectations remain stubbornly entrenched in our society. One of the stories that a founder of The Girls’ Network tells is a girl being amazed that women could be bankers: her image of a banker or anyone working with money was a man in a suit. Some mentees reveal the pressure not to take maths or science as they are ‘boys’ subjects’. The Girls’ Network mentors come from all walks of life and a girl could be being mentored by a banker, lawyer or dancer. As the name suggests, a big mission of The Girls’ Network is to expand girls’ professional networks through mentoring relationships and often through work experience in a range of sectors.
Beyond schools, gendered expectations and gender segregation in the workforce persists. Although you may have sniggered at the girl thinking a banker had to be a man in a suit, in reality men are overrepresented in financial services particularly at the top levels with just 6% chief executives at financial firms being women. In other sectors, men still wield the power. Just over a third of all MPs and councillors are women, with women making up only 17% of English council leaders. There is still a lack of girls and women in STEM: a mere 13% of the overall UK STEM workforce is female. And women still take on much more caring and domestic responsibilities than men, for example 41 % of women compared to just 25 % of men dedicate 1 hour or more a day to caring activities; and 87 % of women aged 25-49 cook every day compared to 55 % of men. Mentoring is not only important for girls at the very start of their professional life but for women at all stages of their careers who continue to combat gendered expectations.
In addition, mentoring is increasingly important throughout women’s lives because career paths are not as straightforward anymore. Increasingly, particularly in younger generations, people ‘job hop’rather than spending their life in one job or even career, opting for flexibility and progression. As one mentor puts it, “Careers have gone from ladder to lattice”. Mentoring programmes can be incredibly helpful for people to navigate these new career trajectories.
A few weeks after the session I described earlier at The Girls’ Network, I had a similar revealing moment but this time as the mentee. My Fabian Women mentor had shown me a methodological way to look at what I wanted out of my career and broader life. This time it was me saying “I hadn’t thought of that” and my mentor smiling.
In formal mentoring schemes, a mentor is usually someone outside of the mentee’s direct social or professional circle, which gives them a unique perspective to offer guidance. Unlike a pedagogical relationship, the mentor is more of a guide rather than an instructor. In all mentoring it is very important that mentors don’t ‘tell’ mentees what do to. A mentor’s role is to provide some of the tools to help a girl or woman build her life.
One of the best aspects of mentoring is that the benefits are experienced by both parties. While the mentee gains tools such as confidence and sector specific knowledge, the mentor also learns from the mentoring process. Not only is it incredibly rewarding to guide someone as a mentor, it is also valuable to develop the unique skill of listening and appropriately advising without being too prescriptive. I have also learned a huge deal directly from my mentees. My current mentee’s ability to stay motivated under intense pressure makes me determined to be more resilient. Sometimes I feel as if my mentee is mentoring me. Even when I am in the position of mentor I often find myself thinking “I hadn’t thought of that.”
By Hannah Phillips
In honour of National Mentoring Day, October 27th 2018