A blonde woman standing on stage giving a talk in front of a screen.
Sarah Cunningham. Image: Mastercard

Mentoring: A call to arms for advancing gender balance

5 Mar 2019

Ahead of International Women’s Day, Mastercard’s Sarah Cunningham reflects on the importance of mentoring for women.

It’s so easy to forget our recent past and how far we have come, particularly here in Ireland. Many women in my generation have had career opportunities that our mothers could only ever have dreamed of. The year my own mother got married, Ireland’s marriage bar still forbade married women from working in public sector jobs – a ban that kept women out of most private companies as well.

Though significant progress has been made, only 18pc of CEO positions were held by women in 2018.

Sadly, many women struggle to progress beyond mid-management – not by choice or lack of talent, but rather due to a lack of confidence, a lack of support, or difficulty getting their foot back in the door post a career-break.

Coaching, mentoring and nurturing our female talent is one simple action that all leaders, male and female, can and should commit to in order to achieve faster progress towards gender balance at all levels of seniority. After all, it is all of our responsibility to make sure that the future of technology leadership is bright, and it’s crucial we ensure women are part of that journey now and for the future generations.

So, this article is really more of a call to action. If you are a senior business leader, male or female, and you don’t currently mentor at least a couple of talented, future female leaders, I urge you to make this your belated 2019 New Year’s resolution.

Equally, if you are female talent in the early or mid-stages of your career, I encourage you not to wait for somebody to assign you a mentor who may or may not be the right fit for your needs, but rather to take control and seek out your own mentor.

Before you approach anybody, however, be clear on your objectives and any specific challenges for which you are seeking guidance. Then, think about your network of senior leaders and ask yourself:

  • Who is most qualified to provide guidance given my specific objectives and challenges?
  • Who has faced similar obstacles along their career journey?
  • Who is in a position to sponsor me and help me attain positive visibility among the senior leadership team?

Once you are clear on your objectives and your ‘best fit’ mentor, be bold and approach them. What’s the worst that could happen? If they say they don’t have the time right now, then move to your next-best-fit mentor and keep going until you have sufficient support in place.

But don’t stop there. No matter what your level, try to have one or two trusted ‘peer mentors’ who you meet with regularly. These are those colleagues, at about your own level, whose advice you revere and whose confidence you trust. And that works both ways. The great thing about peer mentors is that you are more likely to be able to catch them on the fly for advice in the moment, unlike more senior mentors whose time you may need to book weeks in advance.

Another great strategy to build your network is to attend industry-specific or skillset-specific events. Don’t despair if you don’t have the time or budget to attend the big, headline-making conferences. Often you are more likely to make a connection at a smaller, informal event.

Websites such as Meetup are a great start to discover local groups convening on a relevant topic. And if you don’t find a meet-up in your area that meets your needs, then take the lead and establish one!

It is my belief that mentors are not one-size-fits-all. I myself have multiple mentors: senior mentors, peer mentors, female mentors, male mentors, internal mentors and external mentors. After all, one perspective in isolation may be myopic.

Similarly, I don’t just mentor one colleague. I am a formal mentor to three internal colleagues and one external colleague; a reciprocal peer mentor to a handful of other internal and external colleagues; and I was recently invited to join a peer-to-peer group comprising a small mix of leaders from diverse industry sectors, experiences and nationalities who meet once a quarter to share learnings and inspire each other.

Mentoring is not a silver bullet, nor can it solve complex societal issues, but it is a great start and it is something that each and every one of us can get behind. We can all offer our wisdom and learn from others.

This International Women’s Day, let’s all make a resolution to row together towards one common gender balance goal, celebrating each other’s successes and lifting each other up along the way.

By Sarah Cunningham

Sarah Cunningham is the vice-president of the Mastercard Dublin Technology Hub

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