Diversity mentoring programmes focusing on inclusion

Diversity mentoring programmes can learn important lessons from women’s experience of mentoring programmes.


There is compelling research that suggests that strong mentoring initiatives support successful diversity, inclusion and belonging programmes. Diversity mentoring programmes can learn from the experiences of mentoring programmes set up for women. Mentoring programmes should be about inclusion. If they are not, they are not as effective, or simply don’t work at all.

Mentoring plays a vital role to develop engage and retain diverse talent, with benefits for the mentor and mentee alike. Mentoring programmes for women started to get a bad rep with bumper sticker slogans that women are “over mentored and under-sponsored.” That speaks mainly for large international organisations. The reality is that women are both under-mentored and under-sponsored in SMES and small organisations. The advent of the Black Live Matter movement, has prompted companies to think that diversity mentoring programmes for minorities will address some or the issues in their companies.

There are important lessons to be learned from women’s experience of mentoring programmes.


Avoid ghetto creation

Some organisations are looking at the “walked in your shoes” approach and are exploring the idea of matching individuals based on commonalities of being in a shared minority demographic. This falls down in a number of ways. It’s important to under stand the existence and significance of a dominant culture, which exists in all organisations even though they struggle to define it. It’s encapsulated it the phrase “this is the way we do things here.Bill Proudman, CEO and Founding Partner of  Men as Full Diversity Partners, cites the characteristics as follows in the  “How to Build an Inclusive Workplace published by JUMP which I wrote in 2019.

1. Insider group remains uneducated

If senior leaders from the “insider group” are excluded from the mentoring process and not matched with mentees from minority groups, they do not gain a deeper (or any) understanding of the extent of their privilege. One of the primary objectives of any organisation targeting diversity and inclusion is to recalibrate the thinking of this group. This means building awareness programmes that focus on deepening their understanding of the unwritten and unspoken privilege embedded in their position. Businesses that fail to change the corporate culture and leadership mind set, run the risk of investing in mentoring programmes where mentees leave. I have seen this with organisations which offer great mentoring programmes for women, but fail to change the dominant culture.

2. Pressure on minority leaders

Leaders from minority groups, by definition are in a minority. They are few in number in senior roles and are already over-burdened in a number of ways.  Although they play a critical role as role models, the mentoring role needs to be spread around.

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3. Lack of growth

Pairing mentors and mentees who have the same backgrounds may provide areas of common interest and experience especially in relation to forms of discrimination and bias. The danger with that approach is that it doesn’t always allow opportunities for growth. Neither party has an experience of an alternative perspective and there is a risk of minorities being silo’d or even ghetto’d within their individual demographic.

4. Lack of access to power

Mentees need to have an understanding of the power structure within an organisation both visible and invisible. They also need access to it and gain an understanding of how systems, which are frequently not transparent, actually work. They need the insider scoop from the dominant group.

5. Lack of intersectionality

Pairing mentors and mentees who on the surface seems to have a lot in common based on gender, skin colour, religion, language, ethnicity and other visible characteristics, looks like a good idea.  But what about invisible differentiators? The Black, female, lesbian?  Or the physically disabled, Muslim?  Who is to decide which characteristic is the driver for mentor matching? Mentoring programmes for women not only engaged women mentors, but also male mentors, despite a post #MeToo glitch.

6. Lack of  structure

Mentoring programmes should be linked to organisation goals and the career development needs of the mentee. Many companies fail to factor in career development and successions plans for their employee. This can result in mentoring initiatives which add very little value to business objectives and the programme then gets discredited. Offering support to mentees with specific career or professional challenges should be part of the core programme. The sessions should be more than a sympathy-fest.

Training needed

Frequently, organisations make the mistakes of initiating mentoring programmes without any training. It should be a natural and organic relationship.. right?

No.. wrong.

Frequently there is a mis-match of expectations on both sides. Mentees are often unaware that they are responsible for driving the process and they need to have clear goals and expectations around outcomes.  Mentors are representing the organisation and need to guide the mentee in a way that matches organisational objectives and a career plan. To think this will happen organically is unrealistic.

Diversity mentoring programmes have to be set up with the overall goal being inclusion. Without that they are likely to encounter the same criticisms that they are ineffective.

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Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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