THULILE KHANYILE: Does it matter if women are mentored by men?

Mentorship and the formation of relevant international networks will steer women towards greater success. And, towards self-empowerment to advocate and fight for gender parity when they find themselves in spaces where they are the unhealthy “only”.

Female executives are still few and far between, with women holding more supportive and administrative roles rather than strategy and being overall custodians and curators of mission statements. This is to cite the obvious advancement barriers faced by women who continue to be remunerated less than men.

Women with families face tougher challenges in advancement compared to their male counterparts. The family-life balance therefore presents more challenges, especially for women. These challenges present women with an opportunity to better define what their career growth should look like and how they should equip themselves to advocate for the closure of the gender gaps.

The reasons for these challenges are known, have persisted for decades and are socio-economic, political and cultural in nature. The world over the benefits of mentorship programmes have been researched extensively with one study from Cornell University finding that such programmes improved promotion rates for women and minorities from 15% to 38%.

The way I experienced the TechWomen cultural exchange mentorship programme being carried out, inspired an insight in my mind: mentorship is important towards career development and that women need to see themselves in the leaders of the day to believe that they too can lead and make significant contributions in society. As such, and because part of our undertakings at NGO Nka’Thuto Edu Propeller is to empower basic education learners to develop into independent thinkers and leaders of society, we have recommendations on the considerations mentorship programmes should make:

Often, mentors believe themselves to be the omniscient, experienced individuals who should dictate the target areas of growth ahead of understanding what the mentee seeks to achieve. The focus should always be the professional and career goals of the mentee as defined by them.

Mentors must have the capabilities to connect mentees to their professional networks. It is often not the brilliance of the individual alone that gets them into the right spaces. Often, the mentee must be top of mind in those spaces to be brought into the room even without them being present. We may not like to admit it but it’s who you know and are associated with that pivots individuals to the next step. Not to be confused with favours being pulled for unqualifying friends and associates.

Mentorship should focus less on technical aspects of the profession because this borders on supervision. It’s a top-to-bottom approach which doesn’t work for mentorship that should focus on character building and getting the mentor to a point where they are able to communicate their value with ease and confidence in various spaces as required.

The idea that mentorship is limited to professional excellence is flawed. Mentorships should encourage and develop mentees to understand what they like and who they are beyond just the profession. People want to work with people they can learn from and share experiences with.

Impact matters. The visions and missions of the organisations we work for do not limit our abilities to create missions and visions of our own. A purposeful life matters and is often the defining pulse of our lives and successes. That thing that I care about the most, which I can never be separated from. The personal “Why?” Mentees must be encouraged to figure this out because it becomes the reason why they wake up and continue to work hard towards growth and personal development. My why is clear: “the education system must encourage learners to solve problems in ways that contribute to the growth of society and the economy”. Even as a doctoral candidate in molecular medicine, which I like, if most of the citizens in my country have limited to no means to contribute meaningfully to society, I cannot rest – the PhD will not be enough!

The TechWomen programme is for women in tech by women in tech. Which begs the question, “Does it matter that women are mentored by other women or should they be mentored by men?” And my answer, based on my experience having been mentored almost exclusively by men before, is that both matters. But women mentoring women to a greater extent. Mentorship where my mentor is unable to relate to my challenges as a woman can overlook my womanhood and/or find it irrelevant matters.

Having been in similar mix-gendered leadership development programmes before, this experience was lacking the unnecessary competing spirit and lacking constantly having to prove and explain why/how you made it into such a prestigious programme. The excellence was clear and did not have to feature in discussions. The selflessness of it all was as liberating as it was refreshing.

Thulile Khanyile is a scientist, co-founder of Nka'Thuto Edu Propeller and a lecturer at Wits University.