Share

How to elevate more women in business: Female mentors

Indra Nooyi, PepsiCo’s first (and only) female CEO, just stepped down, which means that today only 24 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women. The number is down from 32 in 2017, as female CEOs at big companies such as Avon, Mattel and Campbell Soup were replaced by men. Only  three times in the history of the Fortune 500 has a female CEO been succeeded by another woman.  

According to the 2017 Women in the Workplace study, women make up only 21 percent of top executives who might be in the running to become CEO. In the SP 1500, this number drops to about 10  percent. 

Corporate Chicago is losing women in leaderships roles, too. Mondelez International, Ingredion, Archer Daniels Midland, United Way of Metro Chicago and the Chicagoland Chamber are among the local organizations that have replaced female chief executives with men. 

We are moving in the wrong direction. The question is: What can be done about it? 

One path to a solution is to help the large number of women in middle-management positions prepare themselves more fully for C-suite jobs. And a powerful way of doing that is to recognize that women don’t just need more role models—women need more female mentors. 

Leslie Vickrey, CEO and founder of ClearEdge Marketing, co-founder of ARA, and my own personal mentor, says it best: “You can’t be what you can’t see. Close your eyes. Envision a CEO. What do you see? Possibly a man. Because that’s all we’ve ever known.” 

I’m inspired by activist Brittany Packnett, who has said: “Being the only woman in the room is often a secret badge of honor, but if you are the only woman in the room for a long period of time, then it means you’ve failed.” 

I, too, believe women have a right to be proud of being the “the only woman in the room.” They worked hard to get there! But instead of remaining the only woman in the room, their job should be to help other women get a chance to be there.  
 
One way to do that is through mentorship. I have seen this work firsthand many times. While running the Chicago Innovation Women Mentoring Co-op, I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with over 230 amazing female mentors and mentees. Being able to see and learn from these successful female leaders, women are feeling more confident, finding their voice and discovering their worth. Mentees are launching businesses, closing their first rounds of funding and getting promoted to leadership positions, all thanks—at least in part—to the support and guidance they have received from successful women who have been in their shoes before.  

This is not meant to diminish the value of male mentors, but there is something special about women mentoring other women. Only women know what it’s like to be the only woman in the room. Women can speak to not being taken seriously often in very subtle ways, because of their sex. Women deal with the same expectations and stereotypes. They have experienced the unconscious bias that resides in the business world.  
 
Julia Kanouse, CEO of the Illinois Technology Association, thinks that woman-to-woman mentorship allows for participants to talk about their “whole selves.” She explains:  “With men mentors, I have stayed very focused on work goals. At the same time, having a mentor that can help me integrate my work and life and talk about those struggles is also something I need. For example, I went to my female mentor after I had my first child and was trying to figure out how to work breastfeeding into my daily routine and travel schedule—not something a man could have helped with!”   

I have several male mentors, and I would not be where I am today without their friendship and guidance. But my most impactful mentors have been women. Why? Because we connect on a level that includes our whole selves.  

We need female leaders to help the next generation, so that someday, we can live in a world where half (or more) of the Fortune 500 companies are led by women. 

Allison Jean Dillon is program manager of the Chicago Innovation Women Mentoring Co-op.

MORE:

The most powerful women in Chicago business 

Too few female CEOs? How we solve it.

A stark—and sickening—reminder of how far women still have to go