According to evidence from the US, mentoring can not only significantly improve women's chances of success in management, it accelerates their professional development and provides them with greater job satisfaction, too.
Mentoring is not a new concept. It has long been used as an informal career development tool for bright young people. However, formal mentoring caught on in the UK in the 1980s, and is now, according to the Industrial Society, the fastest-growing management development activity in this country.
Chris Conway, a senior researcher at Ashridge Management college, says that mentoring will grow even more popular as organisations change and hierarchies flatten. In a report due to be published later this month he explains that, as traditional relationships and reporting structures disappear, mentoring can fill the gap by providing support for people who find themselves more isolated than before.
But women managers have potentially most to gain from a mentoring relationship. Jenny Sweeney, a senior consultant at the Industrial Society, explains that many women fight shy of the 'cut and thrust' of business, often opting for the 'softer' disciplines, such as law or personnel, where, as she says, 'they can be creative and influence the way they want to work'.
But, she says, opting out of the mainstream blights women's career development. Progression depends on being able to 'manage the power' in an organisation. 'You can't be trained to do that. You learn it through talking to others who've done it, by example and role model.'
Mentoring specifically for women is a relatively new concept. British Telecom, for example, which has had mentoring schemes for years, is in the process of setting up one just for women. Its Equal Opportunities manager, Victoria Hillier, explains: 'Women need to be in touch with each other to share experiences of barriers and how to clear them. Also, traditionally
women have not taken risks and gone for things, and they need help to overcome that. When it comes to their own attitudes and aspirations, they take advice more readily from women than men.'
Everyone's experience is different, however, and some believe male mentors can provide just as valuable a perspective as women. Opinion also differs as to whether formal or informal schemes are more effective.
Nevertheless, everyone agrees that getting the right mentor is crucial. That means choosing someone with the time, skills, experience, commitment and enthusiasm to perform the role effectively. Sometimes this requires training. But the 'mentorees' should also be aware that mentor will not provide a job on a plate: mentoring is about raising confidence and ability to cope with pressures and demands, thus allowing beneficiaries to progress through the organisation and take advantage of job opportunities.
Trust and confidence are essential, and Ms Sweeney says: 'As in any relationship, if you have to work at it, it is often a better relationship.'
Mentoring only works if the organisation is committed to it. Sometimes the demand - particularly from women - outstrips supply. But, according to Ms Sweeney, most senior managers are enthusiastic about mentoring.
'It can be a real shot in the arm to talk to someone with a different perspective, and have a bright young manager challenging and asking questions,' she says. And mentoring is self-perpetuating, in that people who have been mentored tend to become mentors themselves.
One organisation that believes firmly in formal mentoring is the London Borough of Brent. As part of a shake-up, the council has embarked on a management development programme that includes mentoring for women. Although 67 per cent of its staff is female, just 12.5 per cent of senior managers are.
According to Guy Halliwell, senior consultant at the council: 'We are not stopping anyone getting on the phone and saying, 'Will you be my mentor?' We are just giving people who lack the confidence that extra push.'
Jo Emery is assistant director of administration at First Data Resources (a credit-card transaction processor). She has had mentors - all men - for about 20 years, and she says: 'It has certainly helped my career development.'
Among the benefits have been tapping into the company network, and having 'support, guidance and encouragement, which enable you to make great strides rather than floundering about worrying if you've got it right'.
Mentoring has become a way of life at the Prudential, where schemes have included one for women going on maternity leave.
But it is not only junior and middle managers who benefit from mentoring. Susan Bloch, a consultant with the career management consultancy GHN, provides external mentoring services to top executives in big multinationals.
'There is a growing realisation of the need for outside objectivity and confidentiality,' she says. 'It's a fallacy that if you have reached the top of your organisation you don't need to know any more. We coach people to become more effective at handling particular aspects of their personality or change within the organisation. Personal development goes on indefinitely.'
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