In 2022, the World Economic Forum unveiled a groundbreaking statistic: women held an average of 44% of leadership roles within social impact industries, surpassing all other sectors. This representation showcases the value placed on the skills and traits that women bring to the C-Suite. Given that the landscape is evolving quickly, it is essential to explore what has propelled the surge of women in leadership and how we can replicate their success.
In my ten years of research at the University of Pennsylvania, we’ve learned that purpose-driven women lead using different skills and traits than men use. Throughout their careers, women rely on empathy, calculated risk taking, a bias to action, and a strong need to achieve. They excel at both brainstorming and executing ideas, and are driven by passion for their work and to do right by the people who surround them.
But their skills and traits alone are not enough to propel them forward. In social impact industries where women hold between 74% to 84% of all jobs, there is still a disparity in leadership. Too often, women find themselves in operational roles while men run the organizations. We still have a long way to go to achieve proportional representation. While interviewing 29 women in leadership roles for my latest book, we learned that mentorship and sharing stories are key factors in bridging that gap. In fact, every woman we interviewed highlighted the influence of an impactful mentor in their career trajectory.
I believe unequivocally in the importance of good mentors. I’ve seen the impact first-hand. As a woman who studied mathematics and computer science during a time when it was uncommon, I was often the lone voice in the room. When I decided to pivot from teaching to the business world, many doubted I could do it. However, armed with my experience as an educator, I understood the sector’s trajectory and aspired to be part of the decision-making processes. I just needed a few mentors to take a chance on me. I will be forever grateful to those who supported me. Their guidance opened doors to positions I could not have imagined at the beginning of my career.
Research backs up my experience that mentorship is crucial for women’s success. A global survey of businesswomen found that among those who had a mentor, 71% said that their mentor was influential in their career advancement. Additionally, a report by Catalyst found that women who had mentors were promoted five times more often than women who did not have mentors.
My favorite definition of a mentor is from a recent interview I did with EdTech Advisor, Joysy John, for our book, InnovateHERs. She defined them as “…people who open doors, who listen, who share their journeys, and who guide you to find your own answers to your personal and professional dilemmas.” Indeed, the best mentors I’ve had have always checked all those boxes. A great mentor will do wonders for your career, but I’ve found that many women don’t know where to begin. Finding a suitable mentor can be a daunting task, especially for young women just starting out.
To begin your search for a mentor, create a list of individuals whose careers you admire. These can include authors of books you’ve read, people you’ve heard on podcasts, thought leaders on social media, industry conference speakers, or even alumni from your university. If you’re concerned that someone with a large following may not respond, consider connecting with their organization and reaching out to people in leadership positions. These individuals may possess the qualities your “dream mentor” admires and can still provide valuable insights.
Once you have your list, take the time to research the professional history of each person on your list. Familiarize yourself with the organizations they work for and craft at least three thoughtful, personalized questions. When reaching out, a well-crafted message that highlights a specific aspect of their career and expresses a genuine interest in learning from them will make a stronger impression than a generic request. The difference between “I’d like to pick your brain about your career” vs. “I saw you made the leap from teaching middle school to developing a product for an EdTech company in 2021—I’m interested in doing a similar jump and would love to ask you 2-3 quick questions about how you did it,” can make or break your request.
As you connect with potential mentors, it’s important to narrow your list to those who are willing to make time for you. A good mentor should be committed to supporting you, recognizing and advocating for your talents even when you’re not in the room. They should celebrate your successes, help you navigate setbacks, and provide honest and trustworthy guidance along the way. Once you have that person identified, it’s time to make the ask.
When asking someone to be your mentor, begin with your intention. Whether you’re looking to pivot sectors, develop a new skill set, or build connections in an issue space, be clear about what you’re hoping to gain and define what success will look like for you. If the person agrees to take you on as a mentee, be sure to establish the mentor’s preferred communication channel and confirm how much time the person can dedicate to mentoring. Respecting someone’s time is the best way to continue a healthy mentor-mentee relationship.
Most important! Just ask! Even if that person doesn’t have time, as Patricia Scanlon, founder of SoapBox Labs wisely told me, “It’s great to have a mentor, but often, you can just reach out for one piece of advice when you get stuck. It’s a great way to get started.” In the interest of progress over perfection, remember that mentorship does not always begin as a formal, long-term commitment. Embrace the courage to ask for help, recognizing that the wisdom and insights gained from experienced leaders can propel you toward new heights in your career.
The statistics speak for themselves—women are rising to the top in the education, healthcare, and nonprofit industries. However, this is just the beginning. Ensuring that women have equal opportunities to take leadership positions requires intentional action, and seeking out mentorship is a powerful catalyst. By identifying potential mentors, reaching out with purpose and sincerity, and establishing mutually beneficial relationships, aspiring leaders can unlock doors, navigate challenges, and ultimately shape the future of leadership. When more young women embrace the transformative potential of mentorship, together we will create a more inclusive landscape where women leaders can “do well” for themselves and “do good” for the world.
Special thanks to Laura Smulian, researcher, and writer, for her contributions to this piece and to InnovateHERs: Why Purpose-Driven Women Rise to the Top.
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