Could the idea of speed dating ever work in a business environment? Well, if the experience at International Women’s Day is anything to go by, then the answer is unquestionably yes. The conference held at the Southbank Centre earlier this year brought together women’s leaders to offer advice and business mentoring guidance. The conference was part of WOW – Women of the World, a festival started in 2011 to celebrate women’s achievements and to look for solutions to the many inequalities that women still face globally. What made this event unique was that it was the first ever conference to feature a large-scale speed mentoring event. Hundreds of women and girls from all walks of life were invited to pose a question or challenge they would like a female mentor to help them address. It might not fit the traditional standard industry pattern, but if it worked in the dating industry, then why should it not be equally as effective in business?
But, why speed mentoring? Why not stick to the more traditional approach of one-to-one mentoring instead? Well, the answer was purely practical. It was a question of numbers and logistics. Good mentoring plays an important role in helping women achieve more. With the right mentor, women can receive the additional advice and training they need to seize whatever opportunities come their way and to make the best of their abilities. The problem is that in spite of the push towards greater sexual equality, women still lag way behind men when it comes to being offered these opportunities. Women account for 52 percent of the world’s population, but sadly the number of available opportunities is not proportionate. More women desperately need help and advice which can help to remove barriers and unlock potential, so speed mentoring gave the women’s leaders the best opportunity to reach the greatest numbers.
WOW’s speed mentoring framework was very straightforward. Every mentee got 15 minutes with four different mentors drawn from a wide range of professions: journalists, geo-scientists, army colonels, directors, entrepreneurs, chief executives, DJs, architects, surgeons, barristers, and academics were amongst the 165 women who gave up their time. The speed mentoring process was meant to replicate that of speed dating and be fun, social and stimulating, but it was also envisaged that it could potentially change lives by building professional networks, unexpected friendships and lasing relationships. However, the problem with any scheme like this is that it can by nature be superficial. Doing anything at speed will mean that there is never sufficient time to go into problems in details and address the really fundamental issues like bullying, marginalisation and casual sexism that can for some women seriously hinder all hope of personal progress.
To address those issues, WOW has set up a scheme called Cascade Mentoring. Many young women will find they face similar problems in the workplace. By sharing these problems with others in similar situations, and with a woman mentor who is prepared to be frank and open about her own hopes, fears and experiences, young aspiring women can find the experience enormously encouraging and enlightening. These sessions create peer to peer support and comradeship. Younger women discover their aspirations are being taken seriously and their doubts, dilemmas and conflicts around work and life are recognised. They lose that sense of isolation and get a reality check on problems they might have assumed to be their fault rather than the stuff of office politics or personalities and power clashes.
The ‘cascade’ effect comes from enabling the original mentees to become mentors themselves. Some now lead sessions helping the next generation. WOW wants to encourage hundreds of women to engage with both schemes as mentors or mentees, but is keen to stress that there is a fundamental fact that should not be overlooked: women need the opportunities to go with this mentoring. Women can occasionally be over mentored, but they are frequently under sponsored. WOW believes there’s no point giving all this advice and guidance unless women get a chance to put advice into action.