There are countless articles published talking about the importance and value of mentorship, and we recently saw many of these voices during Women’s History Month in March. Many of these articles strike home at the essence and reasons why mentorship is especially critical for professional women in the workforce.
However, for professional women in male-dominated industries, these articles go beyond simple inspiration. They can be the difference of a short-lived career, or that of an enduring one where you can truly leave a lasting impression on not only women — but the industry as a whole.
I immigrated to the U.S. when I was 10 years old from the Czech Republic, not knowing a word of English. I worked two jobs in high school to help my mother make ends meet and worked three jobs while attending college full time on an academic scholarship. I spent a lot of time in the restaurant industry, working on the weekends and holidays, envious of guests on the other side of the table. It’s true, my sheer determination led me to where I am now, being a wife, mother and gaining knowledge and experience from many male-dominated industries. But along the way it has been clear to me the importance of finding opportunities to help other women advance.
How Mentors Support Professional Growth
According to a recent survey, 56% of American workers have had a professional mentor, while 76% believe that mentorship is important. Previously working in male-dominated industries including construction and motorcycle equipment, I am passionate about helping other women as they pursue careers in retail. I have experienced the difference hard work and women can make, not only through mentoring to other women, but also by bridging the gap with men in the retail industry to help them understand gender differences as well as varying values women can offer their companies.
At the start of my career, I felt the right thing to do was to become “one of the guys” — understanding the language and learning their way of communicating with one another. I was passionate about my work and projects, intensely focused on client service, and gaining confidence within the industries I worked. But along this journey I began to grow more confidence and I realized the importance of stepping outside this mold and understanding the distinct differences between men and women — particularly in the areas of communication. For me, I was fortunate to work in a company environment where these diverse voices were encouraged — even within a male-dominated industry.
Other women are not so lucky. Many do not have the fortune I’ve had with supportive senior management. This is where mentorship becomes so critically important.
I know this because I’ve seen it first-hand, through my involvement with retail associations and organizations where I’ve had the luxury of meeting hundreds of other professional women. Learning from these women has been instrumental in furthering my own professional career, as well as shaping the type of mentor I’ve now become to other professional women — of all career levels — inside my own very organization. I’ve also made it a priority to focus on nominating women colleagues for industry awards and speaking engagements inside my organization so they can shine under their own spotlight, and it was also important that I encourage them to attend the Women’s Forums from various associations for additional growth opportunities.
Not 'One of the Guys’
I wanted to become a strong female mentor who could demonstrate to others how to be successful without having to just be one of the guys. It has been important to be strong and show how to make it okay to be female, even feminine, in the industry and serve as a leading example to others.
It is important for women to mentor other women, provide opportunities and lift each other up. The professional direction women receive from other women is essential. Consider the things female professionals need to be successful. Outside of professional talent and hard work, sometimes women need support from others to champion their ideas and goals, which studies continue to show, may not always receive the same amount of direction and prioritization as those of male colleagues.
The right mentorship goes beyond emotional support and advice. It can be imperative in helping growing female leaders understand and successfully navigate the political minefields that every organization encounters, male dominated or otherwise.
Finding mentors can be challenging for professional women, particularly younger women. Mentors, like portfolios, should be very diversified. You should seek mentors with similar interests, and with dissimilar interests. Mentorship should not just be a popularity club. You should seek mentors of various age groups, as long as they have sincere wisdom to share. You should also choose mentors who can support you in difficult times, but also challenge you and push you to be even better than you ever expect to be. Mentors are special people who have the ability to see potential, and help you reach that potential even when there are difficult situations to navigate.
With this insight, professional women of all ages can have a better understanding of what to look for in a mentor, and how to grow their professional relationship to achieve great potential — in retail or any other industry.
Katerina Jones is vice president of marketing and business development at Fleet Advantage.
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