A mentor-mentee relationship usually brings to mind the image of a fresher working with an older colleague or a supervisor, who acts as a guide to get them started on their career path. By the time a person reaches middle management, however, they’re expected to work independently and ‘have it all figured out’.
Research, however, shows that people need mentoring throughout their career, whether in a formal or an informal way. For women in particular, getting past that mid-career hump to occupy leadership positions can be a challenge without the right mentors. In a new study, ‘Comparing barriers and enablers of women’s health leadership in India with East Africa and North America’, published in The Lancet in June, the authors observed that mentorship, having access to professional networks, team building and a leadership approach that was based in empathy, helped women rise in their careers to become leaders in the health sector.
Women tend to be well-represented in junior positions but are seriously under-represented in senior levels of leadership. The study observes that women hold about 75% of positions in the healthcare sector worldwide—and this number is 80% when it comes to India—but they are virtually missing in senior leadership and decision-making positions. Most women in healthcare in India are community workers and nurses. Even when they make it to senior positions, women from poorer countries are less likely to hold executive positions than their peers from richer countries—while women from low- and middle-income countries hold 1% and 8% of the total board seats, respectively, women from the Global North held 31%.
In India, as in many other countries, the lack of female role models and mentors, the issue of sexual harassment, and conscious and unconscious biases against women in terms of promotions and salary, are barriers to women’s leadership. The findings showed that in India caste as well as social norms such as early marriages and ageism affect women’s careers “more acutely in comparison to similar women in East Africa and North America”.
While the study focused mainly on leadership in the health sector, the authors observed: “Outside the health sector, research in the Indian information technology industry found that individual factors such as self-confidence, ambition, and perceived competency were enablers for women in gaining leadership positions… Another study on women’s leadership in India found women faced family pressure to marry rather than pursue a career, had the added burden of caste stereotypes, and experienced an overall lack of networking opportunities.”
While effective mentorship could help women overcome such challenges, it is also important that women know what kind of leaders they would like to be. The study also asked the women about the qualities they appreciated in leaders they admired. Most of them placed a premium on leaders who showed empathy and genuinely cared about them and their teams. They seemed to show appreciation for leaders who promoted the work of others rather than themselves. The most common leadership quality women in India described was having a clear vision.