Mentoring Women in Leadership

I had an interesting conversation recently with a couple of staff members of a theological college. They said they often had to work hard at convincing women studying "just for interest" or to "help me care for others better", that they could see a gifted vocational minister developing. This was outside of the imagination of many of their female students.

Conversely, some of their male students needed help to see that they were not, in fact, the Messiah. Or that at the very least, before they saved the world, God would need to do a deep work in the areas of character, servanthood, and humility.+

I also coached a woman recently who was applying for a senior ministry position. I asked her to role-play speaking to the leadership team about the role she wanted, and what she had to offer.

That was interesting. This was my feedback to her:

"Don't tell them you're a woman and this could be a problem... they already know that. Don't tell them what you're not good at... tell them what you are good at. Don't just ask them what they'd like... be clear what you want."

This feedback sparked a deeper conversation about how self-deprecation had become a long-standing habit; a defence mechanism against external criticism. While this had indeed helped her receive less criticism from others, and had been useful in building rapport with many people, this behaviour was not serving her well in some leadership contexts.

Inspiring trust requires a level of self-confidence and the capacity to convince others of one's competence. We are less likely to follow leaders who appear to be riddled with self-doubt. We are less likely to promote people who highlight their flaws and minimize their achievements.

So why is it that many women under-estimate and under-sell their capabilities?


In an article exploring why women are promoted less often than men, Sheryl Sandberg noted:

"We expect men to be assertive, look out for themselves, and lobby for more—so there’s little downside when they do it. But women must be communal and collaborative, nurturing and giving, focused on the team and not themselves, lest they be viewed as self-absorbed. So when a woman advocates for herself, people often see her unfavorably."

While the world is (slowly) changing, those of us involved in mentoring women need to be aware that women are socialised to be passive. Helping women recognise situations where they need to find their voice, speak out, and be strong will often arise in mentoring relationships. We need to help women push through their internal resistance and fear of standing up and standing out. This will often trigger a deeper journey around self-esteem and the experiences of youth and childhood that shaped beliefs about what women can do or can not do. It will also involve analysing the complex social dynamics and power structures they are attempting to navigate. Sometimes we will need to be there to help debrief when speaking out clearly hasn't gone well. Sometimes men will push back against assertive women. Sometimes, other women do this too.


So how do we mentor women navigating leadership challenges? Here are a few suggestions for your consideration:


* Ask good questions and listen... mentoring 101.

* Be aware internal scripts from society and family of origin can lead women to self-limit, and shrink back from all God is calling them to do and to be.

* Ask questions about self-talk. ("What are you telling yourself?")

* Allow women to talk through their fears around confrontation. (Many women excel at leading collaboratively; but can procrastinate or avoid being assertive when this is needed.)

* Role-play anticipated difficult conversations, and offer feedback. ("So, imagine I'm the board and you're presenting your proposal.")

* Ask women to draw (or use objects) to represent the relationships and power dynamics in a group they lead. This can help them think about this and their place in the group objectively.

* Ask questions to help them plan out how to achieve a controversial leadership initiative. (Who are potential allies, key decision makers, what needs to be communicated to who, and when?)

* Offer emotional support; risking rejection is hard!

* Ask questions that help them see the power they have even in difficult contexts; a victim mentality is a dead-end. You can change a system by changing yourself and responding differently.

* Ask about allies, advocates and ongoing mentoring needs. (They may need a different, or additional mentor to yourself.)

* Help them reframe difficulties as opportunities for growth.

* Explore whether they believe there are roles women cannot do, and how they feel about women in leadership.

* Ask what further training or equipping they might need to keep growing as a leader and a person in ministry.


What else would you add to this list? What other issues have you encountered?



+ I may have indulged in some poetic licence to make a point!

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