Laura Petrolino

Why Female Communicators Need to Have—and Be—Women Mentors

By: Laura Petrolino | March 4, 2019 | 
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Why Female Communicators Need to Have and Be Women MentorsWomen need women to succeed. That’s a fact.

It’s researched, it’s proven, it’s verified.

And yet, woman-to-woman mentorship STILL doesn’t exist for many.

A 2011 LinkedIn study found that while 82 percent of women said mentorship was important, one in five had never had a female mentor.

Likewise, a DDI World study found 63 percent of women have never had a mentor.

When I first developed the idea to write this article as part of a International Women’s Day tribute, I imagined I’d be flooded with responses about women mentors who changed the trajectory of careers.

Sadly, that was not the case.

Women Mentors Matter

I am amazingly fortunate. I’ve had several extremely significant women mentors (as well as a handful of men).

Any success I’ve had in my career is because of these people. They shaped me into the professional I am today.

Unfortunately, what I found is I’m an outlier.

And so many women leaders, women who I respect deeply, did not have women mentors along their journey.

This is terribly sad to me. And so before I even begin this article I’m putting out a call to arms to every woman communicator reading it (myself included).

Let’s all come back next year for International Women’s Day with a list of women (young, old, and at all stages of their careers) who we have mentored or supported in some way.

Until we start helping each other be successful, we can’t expect anyone else to. Let’s stop letting each other down.

Woman-to-Woman Mentoring: The Facts

Women make-up over half the population.

Men named John make-up less than two percent of the population.

And yet, men named John outnumber women among chief executives of S.&P. 1500 firms.

In fact, there are four men named John, Robert, William or James for every woman leader in the S&P.

Ouch.

Women face what many refer to as a “leaky pipeline” when it comes to career trajectory.

The amount of well-educated and talented women who enter the workforce is disproportionately larger than those who advance to senior positions.

A 2017 study by Egon Zehinder found that 74 percent of women early in their career aspire to reach executive levels in their organization, but that drops to 57 percent as they progress to a more senior level

And only half (54 percent) of women feel they have access to senior leaders who could act as mentors in their careers.

#MeToo and Mentorship Declines

Here is where things get tricky and why women mentors are now more important than ever.

Previously one huge asset for women trying to break into leadership roles was men.

Men mentors helped support, guide, and coach women to reach levels previously void of them.

Unfortunately, while the #MeToo movement has helped women in many ways, it’s also created a situation where men, and especially men in leadership positions, are nervous about working closely with women.

A recent study from Leanin.org and Survey Monkey found close to half of male managers were no longer comfortable participating in work activities with women, including mentorship.

The number of male managers who feel uncomfortable mentoring women has more than tripled. This means one in six are now hesitant to mentor women.

Women need to step up.

The Women Mentors in My Life

I knew I had been lucky. I had no idea how lucky.

While I’ve never had a “formal mentor,” I’ve had countless women who have served that role for me, in big ways and small.

My first mentor was my mom.

I could fill several blog posts talking about my mother and all she taught me.  Endless lessons I’ve carried throughout my professional career. But one thing that always stands out how she showed me you can be strong and empathetic at the same time.

You can have compassion but still be assertive and fierce. Lead in a way that brings everyone up, versus pushes people down.

I’m still perfecting this delicate dance, but my mother is the ultimate pro.

My First Female Boss

My first significant woman manager came the summer of my sophomore year in college, I went to DC for an internship. A big girl internship.

Lisa Reynolds was my manager for the summer. She seemed like a superhero to me.

Lisa represented everything I wanted to be professionally. She was strong and confident, respected, and driven. She kicked booty and took names, but in a way that came across as assertive and in control, not obnoxious.

I will forever remember one evening, during a trip for an event there was a rare slow moment and she took me aside and told me she was impressed with me. She said I had a lot of potential and she knew I’d be successful in the field.

To have a woman I respected so much say something so encouraging to me was like a fairytale.

Her confidence in me helped me through a lot of really rough spots early in my career. Times when everyone (including myself) doubted me.

It also set the tone for my career in general. To start out my professional life with fierce, intelligent, and talented woman as a role model was a gift.

A Career of Mentors

Since Lisa I’ve had a career full of exceptional women mentors.

Women, like Elizabeth Wells Verrill, who treated me as equals (even though in most cases they were my manager), empowered me to trust my instincts, and drive projects or plans (often well beyond my skill or experience level), and encouraged me to take risks and push my comfort zones.

I even count several of our clients as amazing women mentors.

And obviously, I’m very lucky to currently work with a woman who teaches me so much in everything from leadership to how to balance being both an exceptional mother and business owner.

Without these women, my career would be in a very different place. I can never fully express my gratitude.

Why Are There So Few Women Mentors

So the question then becomes, why are there so few women mentorship relationships?

The DDI World study pinpoints three top reasons:

  1. Women don’t ask other women to be mentors.
  2. Lack of time on the part of the mentor.
  3. Women don’t feel they have an appropriate level of expertise to mentor.

I sadly have to admit I’m exhibit A for the first and the third.

I never asked for a formal mentor, just have been lucky to have women serve that role informally. But had I not essentially won the professional lottery, I’d have missed out.

And on the opposite end, the big reason I’ve never BEEN a mentor is I don’t think I’m good enough to do it.

I think to myself: I’m not <talented, successful, experienced> enough to be a mentor for anyone.

Even just writing about it right now gives me this feeling of anxiety that everyone reading is going to laugh and roll their eyes that I’d have the nerve to even suggest I could be a mentor to another woman.

Over half of the women surveyed believe that, as well.

The topic of self-worth is an entirely different blog post. But we all need to sit in our “never good enough’ corners and think about how our behavior is affecting us as an entire gender.

Your Women Mentors

I asked women in our community, many who serve the role as informal and formal mentors for many women (myself included)  to share stories of women mentors who affected their careers, here is what they said.

Teach, Mentor, Empower

Deirdre Breakenridge, author, speaker and CEO of Pure Performance Communications
“I want to teach you everything about our office,” Cindy Kahmi, the officer manager, said to me when I started out as a PR intern in NYC. Cindy was one of my first female mentors. The lessons she taught and role modeled made me realize how you have to step out of your comfort zone and learn beyond your assigned role.
Being a good communicator meant not only understanding your own communication responsibilities, but also understanding your company’s business. From how the office was set up including the in-house communications system to the way we prepared for our client strategy meetings and events, I was a sponge. I dove into different aspects of PR agency work that went far beyond the expected role of a PR intern. The lessons Cindy taught me carried through my career, with a constant curiosity and a thirst for knowledge, as a communicator and a woman in business.

Women Encouraging Women to Succeed

Betsy Decillis, owner and chief content officer of Bad Consulting

Randie Adam of the Cincinnati USA Convention & Visitors Bureau. She posted on my Facebook wall the first day I went solo saying that we needed to work together, and that was the start of landing a very big client. She was very candid with me about how to work with clients, and it helped me immensely.

 Randie is truly successful while still being nice and generous. With my previous world being much more cutthroat, she was one of the first people to truly show me that I could be exactly who I am and still be super successful. And her ability to allow people to own their projects and run with them is true goals to me. In the last couple of years, she became a mom to an adorable little girl and she’s been rewriting the rules of being a successful working mom ever since. It’s been fun to watch on the sidelines, and yes, I’ve been taking notes.

First Boss, Forever Friend

Katie Robbert, CEO and co-founder of TrustInsights

At my first “grown up” job – I was still very immature. I was hired by and began working under a woman, who wasn’t much older than I was, but was light years ahead of me. She had such an even keeled way about her and was so quick on her feet. She really took me under her wing and taught me about patience, communication, and confidence. I stumbled quite a bit early in my career and she was always there to pick me up, give me the tough love feedback that I needed, and then challenged me to do better.

As she advanced, I advanced until we found ourselves on different career paths. While our professional aspirations grew apart, our relationship changed from mentor/mentee to friends. I still find myself thinking “what would Andrea do?” and try to emulate how she would handle a situation, even though I haven’t worked along side her in almost 5 years. She conquered everything with a maturity that I can only hope to have half of. She influenced my career in ways she may not even be aware of.

Why Female Communicators Need to Have and Be Women Mentors

A Family of Mentorship

Mary Barber, CEO of The Barber Group

My mother and grandmother were the two women I looked up to most. In the surface, both were “housewives” but they were so much more than that when you looked further.

My grandmother had a radio show in the early 1900s before marrying my grandfather. After doing so, she devoted her life to running the household and to her community. She was an active volunteer in a number of organizations and raised an amazing family.

My mother ran a business after college and then, like my grandmother raised a family keeping everything going while volunteering. She started many successful and needed programs in our town, including the country’s first neighborhood association.

She and my grandmother taught us all to reach for the stars and did all they could to support that. They told me I could achieve whatever I wanted, and taught the importance of family. It’s not a terribly fancy but it formed my core. These two amazing ladies are my guiding star.

Why Female Communicators Need to Have and Be Women Mentors

Mentorship Through Every Career Stage

Amy Bailey, VP communications of Telarus

My earliest mentor was my grandmother. She ran a very successful tole painting and craft business. She was a strong woman who graduated from the University of Iowa and had that hard-working midwest work ethic. A pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps kind of gal.

My modern mentor would be Dalyn Wertz from Comcast Business. I came to the Channel and didn’t understand the intricacies. She has been a great sounding board for me. We have fun together and she is always there for me when I need advice.

Why Female Communicators Need to Have and Be Women Mentors

Tough Love Builds Careers

Paula Kiger, editor at SmartBriefs

My former boss, Rose Naff, virtually single-handedly created a program from whole cloth that ended up helping millions of children in Florida have affordable health care. It wasn’t a warm and fluffy “sunshine and rainbows” kind of relationship. When we first started working together, it took some calibrating for me to tone down my “good morning” courtesy routine and just get to work as expected.

Although not warm and fluffy, this relationship with such an effective individual, who got things done, taught me lessons I’ll never forget. She also recognized that my attention to detail is a strength that can also get in my way. The biggest lesson was “chunking,” breaking things down into several big categories instead of hundreds of micro tasks that paralyzed me.

Your Turn!

What women served as mentors for you? How have they changed your career?

Share your story below or in our Spin Sucks community.

About Laura Petrolino


Laura Petrolino is the chief client officer at Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She also is a weekly contributor to the award-winning PR blog, Spin Sucks. Join the Spin Sucks   community.