This is the true value of mentors and female story-telling | Women's Agenda

This is the true value of mentors and female story-telling

I’ve spent the last few days surrounded by amazing women who have generously shared their stories of career success.

It started with breakfast with the fabulicious Magda Szubanski at a Business Chicks breakfast. I was there at the breakfast as a member of the Telstra Business Woman of the Year Alumni. In addition to those great women, as is usual at these events, I was surrounded by hundreds of inspiring and energetic women who are changing the world.

Magda had us alternately laughing at her Irish dancing from the waist up (you had to be there), touching each other on the bottom “in a completely non-sexual way” (you also had to be there) and deeply moved by her stories of trauma, courage, resilience, recovery and success, among other big life things.

I went from breakfast to a two-day conference on women in leadership in my field at which I was an invited panel member. There, I had the privilege of listening to numerous senior women tell their stories of success, often in spite of significant adversity, obstacles and challenges.

One woman’s story included experiences of bullying, toxic workplace politics, chronic illness, lack of job security and being locked out of funding opportunities in a profession where having a career depends on access to those funds. Some of the particular techniques she used included reporting the bullying, moving roles, participating in a Women in Leadership scheme, applying for awards and applying for leadership positions, even when she felt she ‘wasn’t quite ready’.

But in particular, the importance of seeking and utilising the support of others came through in this woman’s presentation, as it did in a number of others’. Many suggested finding people you can trust and debrief with because building and nurturing your networks is one of the most useful things younger women can do. In addition to the usual advice of ‘put yourself out there’, (easier for extraverts, harder for others), I would add ‘be a great listener’, ‘know how to keep confidences’ and if you promise to do something for someone, don’t let them down (ie, learn to say ‘no’ sometimes).

Almost every speaker mentioned the value of having mentors, who may or may not know they are mentors, and asking them for advice. It’s not common to find one mentor who can meet all of your needs so having a few people you can call on for advice is useful. Overall, the messages of ‘ask for help’ and ‘never walk alone’ were clear.

Magda had also made reference to the support she receives from her family members, friends and colleagues, especially the female ones. Rather than using mentors, she told us she has preferred to be in a situation where women support each other. She talked of the joy of that special camaraderie and connection that women-only interactions can bring us.

One suggestion that struck me from the conference was to choose your leaders carefully. While not always possible, where you do have a choice, try to choose leaders who will support you. Your leader can have a significant impact on your career progression, not to mention your health and wellbeing.

Several speakers also highlighted the importance of supporting women coming up behind you. I’m a really big advocate of senior women (and senior men) doing this. Not only does it help secure a better future for women – the more women we support earlier in their career now, the more there will be in senior leadership positions in the future – it’s also a lot of fun and highly educational for the senior leader. I really enjoy interacting with my mentees and that’s how I find out what is really going on in the organization.

Magda pointed to the impact that women rising through the ranks can have. She explained, “In every art form, you’re standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before you”. In her case, they were all men and the accepted wisdom was “women aren’t funny”. Magda and her peers were faced with moving the narrative for women in comedy from ‘clipboard holder’ (a woman on the side of the action who asks male comedian a question so he can give a funny answer) to front and centre. Kath and Kim was written by women, produced by women, largely performed by women and is the most successful comedy in Australian TV history. Who’s laughing now?

Marcia Devlin is a senior executive at Federation University Australia and winner of the 2016 Women’s Agenda leadership award in the government/public sector category.

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