Levelling the playing field for women through the human power of mentoring

Levelling the playing field for women through the human power of mentoring

businesswoman signing a document

16 September 2022

Sally Twisleton, who is Head of Engineering Quality at Rolls-Royce, reflects on the power of mentoring in enabling women to reach positions of senior leadership, and more generally in the areas of diversity and inclusion.

Six months since I wrote my last blog post, The privilege of being a mentor, I thought I would add some further reflections on the power of mentoring, this time with more of a focus on diversity and inclusion.

As a gay woman working in the very straight, white, male-dominated environment of engineering and manufacturing, ever since I entered the industry, I have had first-hand experience of feeling different and having to work hard to get a sense of belonging. The issues of diversity and inclusion are therefore very close to my heart, alongside coaching and mentoring.

With this in mind, when I decided to do my masters degree in coaching and mentoring, I chose the dissertation topic, ‘The Role of Coaching and Mentoring in Creating a Better Gender Balance within the Senior Leadership of Engineering’.

I came into the study with the belief that coaching would play the stronger role, but throughout my research, mentoring came out as a much more effective mechanism to support a route to leadership. With hindsight, this should not have been a surprise! I interviewed a number of senior technical women who had ‘made it’, and carried out a detailed literature study to explore my findings critically.

What I discovered was that a woman benefits from several different types of mentoring throughout the course of her career to help her to push up into a leadership role. The mentoring my interviewees received covered a whole spectrum of functions:

• support to develop technical depth
• role modelling
• challenge and encouragement to keep going
• support and counsel when things get tough
• sponsorship to help level the playing field to access the top jobs

More recently I was introduced to a paper, Mosaic mentoring: finding the right mentor for the issue at hand, which explored the idea of mosaic mentoring, which again looks at the range of different mentoring approaches someone might need.

It is important to note that none of these functions are designed to ‘fix the woman’, but more to help them to navigate the challenges they face and provide a more supportive environment for them to flourish.

I think organisations need to reflect on the wide range of mentoring functions and become more intentional about positioning mentoring in the organisation. They could provide a more emotional and pastoral range of support, alongside the traditional ‘passing down of wisdom’ or ‘what job do you want next?’ conversations which seem to be more the norm.

Although my study focused on women in an environment dominated by men, I believe that many of the findings and themes would read across for other types of diversity, such as race, sexuality, and neurodiversity – although I do recognise that each facet of diversity comes with its own nuances. They all share the common challenge of being different to the majority, and the additional challenge of navigating this. If organisations were to be more intentional about mentoring, and offer more mentoring approaches, I think this would benefit everyone.

In my last blog post, I wrote about the development of my mentoring relationship with a female mentee. She described the last year of mentoring as ‘life saving’. She didn’t mean this literally, but she has been through a year of turmoil, and our mentoring has been a safe, confidential and supportive space for her to process and navigate some highly charged challenges

Shouldn’t we all have access to something like this? This is especially the case for those of us who also face the additional struggle of how to find our place.

Reading resources

Some very readable resources which helped shape my research were:

Talent Management and Mentoring, by Lis Merrick and Paul Stokes (2008)

A Lack of Sponsorship Is Keeping Women from Advancing into Leadership, by Herminia Ibarra (2019)

FTSE Women Leaders: Improving gender balance in FTSE Leadership (the Hampton-Alexander Review, 2018)

Breaking Through: Stories and Best Practices From Companies That Help Women Succeed, by Martine Liautaud (2016)

Image by Romain Dancre on Unsplash