Young female employees are coaching senior executives on sexism in ‘reverse mentoring’ schemes

Putting themselves in another gender’s shoes.
Putting themselves in another gender’s shoes.
Image: Reuters/ Stefan Wermuth
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Reverse mentoring, which involves younger employees taking senior managers under their wing, may sound like a new-fangled concept. But such schemes have been around for decades, with then-CEO Jack Welch introducing it at General Electric in 1999 to help his employees get to grips with the internet. But while reverse mentoring has typically focused on technology innovations, companies are now using such programs to help shift outdated sexist attitudes.

Consulting firm EY is one such company to try and update its culture through reverse mentoring, reports The Times (of London). As part of the EY scheme, 35-year-old director Sayeh Ghanbari has spent the past five years mentoring managing partner Adrian Edwards, with a focus on gender issues.

Ghanbari says she was a “little apprehensive” at first, but that Edwards was very committed, and set aside an hour a week for his mentoring. She decided to buy the coffee to signal their reversed roles, and allowed Edwards to bring up any of his questions or concerns.

“I decided it needed to be like any other mentoring and that therefore the onus was on my mentee to bring up what he wanted to work on and what he wanted to get out of the relationship rather than the other way around,” she says in an interview.

The two discussed broad questions, such as whether positive discrimination is right and if the firm should introduce quotas, as well as more personal questions about how to handle certain situations. Today, Ghanbari says that EY is a very different place than when she joined a decade ago. She once set Edwards the challenge of using his mentored learning to influence others, and says she’s noticed many other leaders doing the same. And she believes their meetings have helped develop Edwards’ perspective on diversity.

“I think he would say it was quite a big learning experience for him. I’ve noticed that Adrian’s made differences in the business. When he talks about decisions he makes, he does try and take a very different perspective and consider diversity issues,” she says. “We wouldn’t have carried it on for this long if it wasn’t valuable to him.”

Edwards is now part of a “Dads for Daughters” campaign, involving fathers of pupils at St Paul’s Girls’ School in London, in an attempt to challenge sexism at work. The campaign was founded after the school conducted a survey of pupils who graduated between 1998 and 2008, and so were now aged between 25 and 35 years old. Some 73% said they’d encountered gender inequality at work and, while most had attempted to make changes, 87% said they felt men should make a greater effort.

While it’s certainly not the case that all younger people are less sexist than all older employees, younger generations tend to have higher expectations for diversity in the office than those who joined the workplace decades before.

Of course, reverse mentoring is not a simple, one-step solution to sexism in the workplace. Corinne Mills, managing director of Personal Career Management, points out that a reversed power dynamic is “quite a tricky task,” and says that companies should also work to address prejudice with coaching and performance targets focused on the issue.

At EY, Ghanbari says reverse mentoring was introduced alongside other initiatives, such as mandatory full-day unconscious-bias training for all partners and staff. And while the reverse-mentoring program may not have any impact on employees who are maliciously sexist, she says it can be useful for shifting subconscious sexism, which is often difficult to address.

As one example of such casual prejudice, Ghanbari says she received an email this week where she was referred to as “he,” because the person writing did not know the gender of her name. “Does it matter?,” she says. “I think it does because it’s a reflection of the assumptions that we as individuals make unconsciously. And when you make assumptions about small things, you’re probably making them about big things.”

Alexa Scordato, director of product marketing at Stack Overflow and a proponent of reverse-mentoring schemes, adds that casual sexism adds up over time and can hold women back without them even realizing it.

It’s too easy to brush it off as “no big deal,” she says, but, “subconscious bias is a real thing and it affects recruiting decisions, business interactions, and the way women and minorities are perceived and portrayed everywhere.”

However, she points out that unless a company actively promotes diversity, reverse mentoring won’t make a significant difference. “Some of the most progressive companies don’t have reverse-mentorship programs. They simply embrace the idea that learning happens at all levels and that any employee, regardless of age, brings something special to the table,” she says.

But certainly, reverse mentoring can help older employees put aside stereotypes, and is a step towards turning ambitions for an inclusive culture into a reality.