What if women collaborated to compete: from (m)entoring to (w)inner circle

It’s a generally agreed truth that a great mentor can do great things for your career. So it’s no surprise that there are numerous mentoring schemes that match girls and young women with a personal mentor who works one-on-one with them to provide careers advice, CV feedback, interview practice, access to the mentor’s network and crucially, in the case of female mentors, a female professional role model. 

Sounds great, so why do we need a different approach to women’s mentoring?

Simply put, all these mentoring programs are not having a big enough effect. The numbers of women on boards remains small, and men continue to outnumber women in all executive roles apart from HR and Marketing, and even in those traditionally female domains, men cluster at the top while women languish in support roles and peak at middle management. There are at least two reasons why today’s mentoring schemes are not helping women go where they belong (Where do they belong? Answer: anywhere they want to go, including where the decisions are made). 

  • An influential Harvard Business Review study identified the first possible explanation: women are being over-mentored and under-sponsored. What does this mean? „All that attention doesn’t translate into promotions“, concluded the study by Herminia Ibarra, Nancy M. Carter, and Christine Silva in 2010. And not much has happened in the last decade or so, it seems. This FT article succinctly explains the difference between mentoring and sponsoring, in a quote by Gordon Nixon, a former CEO of Royal Bank of Canada, who said “We’ve all had mentors who have offered advice, but sponsors are the people inside our company who have helped us get to senior levels. Sponsors are what you really need to succeed.” In short, many mentoring schemes are long on advice and short on advocacy/action. 
  • The second reason ist hat men and women need different kinds of networks to succeed. Another study found that to achieve the executive positions with the highest levels of authority and pay, women have to have an inner circle of close female contacts. Men, too, benefit from having an inner circle, but the gender composition of their circle does not matter. For women, it does. In fact, women who have networks similar to those of successful men (without an female inner circle) can still make it into leadership positions, but they are among the lowest in authority and pay: they are the underpaid executives at the bottom rung of the executive ladder. The exact reason why this is so remains unclear, but the working theory is hat no one understands a woman‘s career wishes and professional self-doubts better than…a woman! There’s value to talking to people who’ve been there, done that when you’re thinking about going for that promotion but also considering trying to conceive.

ActionWomen: Women supporting women for increased impact

We always knew that behind every great man, there’s a great woman. Turns out behind that great woman, there’s an entire inner circle of great women supporting each other!

What we propose is a mentoring program that brings women together to create our own positive futures. You may have read the famous quote by former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright:

There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!

Madeleine Albright, 2016, while on the campaign trail supporting Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

We quite agree with Madeleine, who incidentally attended Wellesley College, a women-only liberal arts college in Massachusetts: we believe there’s a special place in heaven for women who support each other. And there’s also a special place on earth for women who support each other: namely, the ActionWomen (w)inner circle!

What’s different about the ActionWomen Advocacy approach?

The ActionWomen Advocacy approach employs a multi-directional-mentorship model. Essentially, rather than having 1 mentor and 1 mentee, we propose setting up a mentoring group, which brings women together to bring their combined knowledge and experience to a specific challenge experienced by one or more members of the group. Everyone’s combined experience provides the group members with better quality mentoring than a single mentor might provide.   

As the group members share their perspectives, the sense of shared experience and ties are strengthened: voila, there’s your inner circle of female supporters. The strength and dynamism of a group also makes it more likely that solutions will be found and implemented not just by one woman, but many: The ActionWomen Advocacy strategy is aimed at changing the status quo, aligned with the ActionWomen ‘pyramid’ model of five-fold aims. This would not happen in one-on-one mentoring, as mentor and mentee are isolated from other people with similar experiences – each woman is on her own. 

Let’s use our collective power to make change happen

ActionWomen (w)inner circles will join forces to empower women to achieve their potential for good – by helping each other and achieving each woman’s aims for a better, more equitable future.  

Across our advocacy groups, we will encourage women to ask for their contribution to be recognised. Currently, women who do so are often considered “too pushy” or “not a team player”. We will use our group advocacy approach to develop strategies for their work to be recognised as, e.g.: 

  1. As first or senior author on papers, articles etc. 
  2. to be considered for committees
  3. To give keynote presentations at conferences and present on webcasts etc.
  4. As spokespeople in interviews with the press
  5. As leaders on important client pitches

…the list goes on… 

ActionWomen’s group advocacy approach encourages conversations that can change lives: 

  1. Create groups that can chieve better mentoring outcomes
  2. Create a community that is better placed to achieve action than individuals 
  3. Create bigger networks that each member can draw on for advocacy

Group mentoring and women’s advocacy networks will combine to bring about meaningful change that empowers women to be empowered to reach their full potential in the workplace – as women, not as mini-men.

By forging these elements together, we create a new way for women to support each other to succeed. We propose holding the first (w)inner circle on one of the below topics, please let us know your preference or any other topics or experiences you’d like to talk about: 

Remember – you are not doing this just for yourself: A sustainable economy cannot be achieved without gender equality. Women’s empowerment is a key factor for achieving sustainable economic growth, social development and environmental sustainability. While it can feel uncomfortable to be seen to strive, hopefully we can agree that we are not doing this just for bigger botox budgets: we are doing it to lift other women to where they want to go, and where they – and we – can have the biggest possible positive impact on this planet.

Finally, why not give give recognition to your (women’s) inner circle and take part in our social media challenge: tag your inner circle on LinkedIn or Twitter and give them kudos: Use the hashtag #WomenSupportingWomen

If you wish to join us in helping women achieve our potential for good and join our first ActionWomen (w)inner circle, please contact us here and we’ll be in touch with next steps:

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