I learned the importance of mentoring women the hard way— by working in an industry so male-dominated that the nearest role model I could find was 4000 km away.
As the manager of an airline at Darwin Airport, I had very few people I could turn to for advice. Not only was I just the second female airport manager that my airline had ever had, but the environment was very hierarchical. It wasn’t the kind of environment that encouraged questions.
Fortunately, my long-distance female mentor was terrific. I was very, very lucky that she took me under her wing. She helped me not only with the technical aspects of running an airport but even more with my communications and management skills.
We spoke a lot on the phone and I shadowed her as well for a little while, at her airport. I learned a lot by watching her. I was impressed, for example, with how she managed to never raise her voice, whatever the situation would be. Even when the baggage handlers’ and the flight attendants’ union representatives were escalating during negotiations, she never let them rattle her.
Looking back, I realize that my colleague taught me that if you’re a woman who wants to succeed in business, you need more than competence. You need a circle of influence, you need allies. She might have been in all the way down in Canberra but she always had my back.
Of course, not all the lessons I’ve learned have been from more experienced people. These days, I find I’m learning a lot from younger women as well, people who have grown up with a much stronger sense that they deserve to be treated equally, full stop.
Women of my generation were all taught that we had to be better than anybody else simply to be treated as equals. This generation tends not to put up with that. If I’m a woman and you’re a man and we’re hired for the same job, I expect the same performance expectations will apply to both of us.
For the younger women I meet now, gender is less of an issue than managing particular personality types. Where they tend to struggle is not with peers but their supervisors, more male-heavy executive teams where there is not yet a lot of diversity. I also see women being their own worst enemies sometimes by being overly competitive with each other when the real challenge is creating more opportunities for all of us.
That’s why I like the Circles of Influence concept. Rather than seeing learning as something that only people just starting out do, the idea of the circle suggests that we can all help and learn from each other.
These circles can take different forms. One circle I belong to mostly exists as a WhatsApp chat group. We post questions when we have them, or use the chat room as a recruiting resource if one of us is hiring. I belong to a second group as well that began as a formal women’s mentoring program but has since evolved into an informal network that gets together every three or four months. The first group is fairly large. The second, which began as a female mentoring program, is small. But what these mentoring programs share and what makes them work is that they have a core of committed members.
More formal mentoring programs have their uses for mentoring women too, but these also need to function to an extent like a circle of influence and what you get out of it depends on what you put into it. In my experience, the most successful mentorships begin with the mentee identifying two or three big issues that she would like to work on. The clearer she can articulate those issues, the more likely it is that I, as a mentor, will be able to help her. Just as with a circle of influence, you have to bring the questions, and you have to bring the commitment.