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Women mentees are not damsels in distress

The chances that you’ve seen the statue or a piece of art depicting Atlas, the muscled Titan of Greek mythology holding up the celestial heavens on his shoulder are quite high. However, the chances that you drew a parallel between this image and the role of a woman – at home, at work and in her many avatars as daughter, mother, caregiver, breadwinner, cook, grandmother, friend, confidant and more are probably lesser.

I believe a woman has potential to shine in every role she takes on – given the right guidance, flexibility and understanding. For the sake of this article, let me narrow the focus down to a woman’s potential as a professional. 

I draw from my own career of 20 years to share my learnings and observations of the tool; mentorship. As a mentor and mentee at different phases in my career, I have seen how mentorship can truly benefit the career of ambitious and motivated women in the workplace.


woman peeping out from behind her computer

Let me share an instance from a progressive workplace like ThoughtWorks. Even here, inspite of forward-thinking work environment, one could experience challenging moments where their capability and experience is questioned. And during such an instance, my mentors at work played a huge role in helping me understand that I needn’t fear failure or be limited by self-doubt because it’s often the most powerful path to reinventing oneself.

In light of the progress being made on the mentorship front, I believe women technologists have a big calling ahead of them to be visible, active and engaging role models, and mentors for the next generation of women technologists. Here are my suggestions on how to provide effective mentorship for women –

Focus on strengths – My observation of Indian society and culture leads me to believe that Indians have been groomed, for generations, to uniformly excel at everything. For instance, if a child scored 60 marks in a subject and 90 in another, a parent tends to spend an enormous amount of energy in converting the 60 into a 90 rather than getting the 90 to become a 100. 

This thinking extends itself to how women are expected to conduct themselves at work and home as well. Mediocrity in both house and office work is far more acceptable than excelling in only one of those areas, leaving the other to be handled by the rest of the family or a project team.

A healthy mentorship is where the mentor recognizes where the mentee’s true passion and strengths lie and hones them. “A diamond can be cut to sparkle and shine, but will never become a ruby.” Mentors should always maneuver a mentee’s career in a direction that leverages their interests, and encourages the latter to continuously improve until the mentee is simply the best at doing what she loves.

I love how the organizational culture at ThoughtWorks actively encourages women to choose their own mentors from the vast global network of women in tech. The approach drives change, supports advancement, improves retention and attracts a diverse set of women to the company.

In this context, I’d like to draw attention to the [email protected] affinity group – a forum designed to strengthen and support gender diversity at ThoughtWorks in India. The affinity group provides a safe forum, for mentees and mentors alike, to discuss themes of women empowerment, capability building, work-life balance and more.

Acknowledge limitations – It’s said that acknowledging a problem is the problem-half-solved. However, in my experience, it’s particularly hard for women to acknowledge their very human limitations. 

A mentor should be mindful of this and help mentees recognize that such acknowledgement is not accepting defeat. They would do well to share their own personal experiences of failures, setbacks and learnings rather than extol the virtues of the ten-armed Goddess.

ThoughtWorks has a Network of Women (N.O.W) that’s a growing and connected community of women. I’ve learned so much from other women’s career and personal journeys through this community – the limitations they worked with, the risks they took, what worked and what didn’t. The N.O.W forum is designed for curious women from all walks of life who come together to learn from each other and be inspired. The community curates fresh content, wonderful speakers and trainers, and innovative formats to pull together an enriching experience for people like me.

Multitask in bouts – Women are often celebrated in advertisements, profile pieces and story narrations for their ability to multitask. But, as contradictory as this might sound, I’d advise mentors to not congratulate women on their multitasking abilities. Multitasking will need to occur from time to time but indefinite multitasking is not sustainable and is unhealthy. 

A mentor should advise for focus and concentration which ensures much further progress than trying to do too many things at the same time. Not to mention the perpetual stress that a multitasker is under. The guilt of not doing everything perfectly affects many career women and a mentor must be sensitive when discussing this theme.

The pressure of being a multitasking career woman and new wife or new mother is often the reason for women to take a career break. ThoughtWorks runs programs like Vapasi that’s designed to help experienced women technologists, currently on a career break, resume their tech journeys with the help of short term technical bootcamps, the potential employees are also made aware of progressive policies and flexible working styles that are available to them.

Evolve a risk appetite – Culturally, men are applauded for their risk-taking nature while women are cautioned against it and taught to avoid trouble. Constructive mentoring encourages women out of their comfort zone to achieve the phenomenal. It’s from experience that I say – career progression can really benefit from reasonable risks over the conventional, incremental small steps.

At ThoughtWorks, leaders proactively recruit women for different roles based on their areas of interests and strength. Also, there’s a lot of flexibility for folks to move across roles – from project and client facing roles to operations, regional and support functions like HR and People functions.

A capable woman will get where she deserves to be, but her mentor must allow her the pace and space to achieve her potential. Numerous studies have confirmed that women are more often sensitive, vocal, hopeful, caring, resilient and better at processing emotions. And, a mentor who commands high emotional intelligence will be extremely successful in their role. 

Practices like giving a pat on the back when deserved or having a conversation where the mentor listens more and speaks less or where emotional support is generously shared are evidence of responsive mentorships. 

A word of caution for mentors who are not women but are actively mentoring women at the workplace – cultivate a trust-based relationship but don’t try to ‘rescue the damsel in distress.’ Enter the relationship with humility and try to shun hierarchy when mentoring.

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