This is a guest post from Charlotte Turnbull, Coaching & Mentoring Consultant

mortar board image.pngThe 14th November 2016 was a great day. I graduated from my MSc in Coaching & Mentoring from Sheffield Hallam University. Having worked in the HE sector for almost 25 years in HR and development roles across both universities in Sheffield, it was great to be in the audience this time rather than the platform party. But another change had also occurred. My dissertation research into the role of mentoring within a women’s leadership development scheme had led me to a series of powerful realisations around the role of mentoring and mentors within the development of leaders.

Using mentoring to address issues of under-representation of groups within leadership is a popular approach. My research focused on exploring this from a mentors’ perspective and was a small study of 6 mentors (50% of the mentors participating in the programme in the two years reviewed) within one university as part of a national programme.

To set the context for the role of this mentoring, I explored the literature around women in leadership, which revealed insights new to me beyond the standard ‘glass ceiling’ approach. Eagly & Karau’s (2002) ‘Role Congruity Theory of Prejudice Towards Female Leaders proposes that women are judged harshly for (a) being in a leadership role in the first place, as this was not congruent with society’s expectations, and (b) once in a leadership position their behaviour was also subject to more criticism than men. If a women leader acted agentic, that was not considered acceptable as this behaviour was aligned with male behaviours, but if they acted communal then that was also criticised as it was not aligned with the accepted stereotype around successful leadership (i.e. males acting in an agentic manner). An interesting ‘double whammy’ which could usefully be explored within the mentoring relationship I thought, but was not being openly discussed by mentors within the programme.

A further standout revelation for me was from Morley’s (2013) stimulus paper for the Leadership Foundation ‘Women and Higher Education: Absences and Aspirations’. Morley outlined a range of limitations put on women in HE leadership which kept them from the top positions. From these, the concept of permitted success for women in supporting areas, but not core organisational business (i.e. academic roles for HE), jumped out at me.

The description of ‘velvet ghettos’ for communication, finance and human resource management roles stopped me in my tracks. That was me! I consider myself to be a pretty independent thinker, comfortable with being agentic and driven in my career as well as being emotionally literate and relationship focussed. But reflecting back on my choices and experiences of how others had responded to me, through the combination of these new perspectives was a real eye opener. If I was unaware how gender stereotyping in leadership had potentially impacted upon my behaviours and decision-making as I built up my career, then how might it have impacted upon my coaching and mentoring practice? And how did it impact upon the women’s mentoring programme that I was reviewing?

By looking afresh at the mentoring programme, I revisited its core aims and compared that with how it operated. The aim was to boost the number of women into leadership, admittedly not necessarily in the same year of operation, but presumably sooner rather than later! This was within the organisational context (which mirrored the national picture) of a male dominated senior leadership team. The mentors taking part in the review period were senior women from both academic and professional services areas. So, we had women mentoring women in isolation from the main, male dominated leadership board. It struck me that this leadership paradigm, and the thinking of the top decision-makers, and holders of resources for the organisation, were not being disrupted in any way. Without any disruption at this organisational (macro) level how could any change occur?

Disruption at the mentoring relationship (micro) level also interested me. Was the mentor’s role one of steward and to help emergent women leaders navigate the system that appeared to currently work against them? Or was it to be a change agent, who considered the mentor role and the mentoring relationships could shake up the status quo? Most mentors in my study considered it to be’ a bit of both’, but further exploration revealed that they focussed on change, or disruption, at the individual level e.g. raised self-awareness of the mentee.

I was surprised that one of the key questions that jumped out at me from my reflections on all this was – is this ethical practice? If we have a recognised national issue around the lack of women in leadership then why are we not (a) including reasons for this as a key feature in the mentoring conversations and (b) why are the people who could influence sustainable change not being required to participate in those conversations as mentors? I appreciate the vulnerabilities of conscripting mentors to participate in any programme, but perhaps it’s a worthwhile step if change is needed?

A further ethical question was the need to support mentors (women and men) in exploring their own prejudices around gender and leadership. I’d consider this a valid step to ensure that destructive messages were not being passed on, either consciously or not. It would also enable the mentors in turn to support mentees to explore their own opinions and bring a transparency and openness to the discussion.

I’m sensitive to being perceived as being critical of the scheme I observed. I’d emphasise that it was due to the high calibre of the mentors and the evident quality of the mentoring across the programme that I was able to explore it on a higher level principles basis. I’m also pleased to say that observations arising from my dissertation have also been fed in to help enhance the scheme further.

Change takes time, but we can all consider how our mentoring can disrupt the status quo, even from our ghettos, however comfortable they may be!