From The Straits Times    |

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Did you know that behind every successful woman is often another successful woman? Female mentorship can be extremely powerful – especially in the corporate world, where women are too often denied a seat at the table. They also face myriad challenges in the workplace, from microaggressions to stereotypes about motherhood. These biases can make it challenging to progress in one’s career or earn a well-deserved promotion.

At a recent webinar organised by Chinese newspaper Shin Min Daily News and government feedback portal Reach, Minister for Communications and Information Josephine Teo shared that when she was pregnant with her first child, her then-boss told her that she no longer seemed as motivated as before. “When I heard that, I thought, ‘Why is it that you think of me that way as a new mother, but you don’t think the same way when my male colleagues become new fathers?’,” she recalls.

Her experience is one shared by many women at various stages of their career journeys. Indeed, one of the biggest draws of a female mentorship programme is the support that it offers. By connecting with women mentors, it helps to know that there are allies who can understand, empathise, and draw lessons from their own experiences to help one overcome difficult hurdles.

New business owner Shana Singh (not her real name) agrees. She has reached out to a few male and female mentors for tips on setting up her communications venture. While she has gleaned “excellent advice” from her three mentors, she enjoys her sessions with her female guide the most.

“When I started my business earlier this year, I faced many moments of uncertainty regarding the longevity and scalability of my business. When it comes to day-to-day decisions, I find it easier to speak to my female mentor, who’s around my age as well. She cut her teeth at various start-ups and founded her own company as well, so she’s plugged into the realities on the ground. Her advice is always relatable and level-headed,” she says.

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Making mentorship accessible

Female mentorship programmes are becoming increasingly common in Singapore, and they are often conducted in-house, typically at large organisations. But for women working at smaller companies, as well as those who are returning to the workforce after having children, it can be difficult to gain access to these resources.

This is where grassroots initiatives such as the Women Supporting Women Mentorship Programme come in. Launched by NTUC U Women and Family in partnership with Punggol Shore constituency in 2020, it pairs participants – from mid-career professionals to stay-home caregivers wishing to return to the workplace – with mentors from across different industries, who share insights on their own professional journey and tips for career development.

During the programme’s pilot season, 150 mentees benefitted from resources including skills training, CV writing workshops, interview preparation sessions, legal advice, and even job fairs. Two years on, it has expanded to 10 other constituencies islandwide. According to Ng Ling Ling, a member of parliament representing the Jalan Kayu constituency, an inaugural batch of 12 mentors from her ward recently underwent a training workshop in June, and there’ll be a call for mentee applications later this year.

Ms Ng herself is no stranger to the importance of mentorship, having personally guided women who have gone on to have successful careers, including a hearing-impaired working mother serving as a finance manager in the National Council of Social Service. In this spirit, she hopes to soon launch a one-stop portal aimed at providing resources and mentoring opportunities for women in various stages of their career journey.

“Fifteen years ago, when I returned to work pregnant after being on no-pay leave for six months, I felt I was slow in my thinking and decision-making for a while. It happened again after I returned from maternity leave. I appreciated good colleagues, especially women leaders, who helped me adjust back each time.

“Having been personally blessed with women mentors who’ve helped me through my toughest moments, I want to do my part and encourage other women to support one another through mentorship,” she says.

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Building a connection

Of course, a mentorship is not confined to structured, sit-down programmes – it can also take place in more informal settings. Enter Mentor Walks: relaxed, hour-long strolls during which participants can chat with female leaders about career advice. Launched in Australia in 2016, the first Singapore session took place in August 2022, with more bimonthly events in the works.

“What happens when you walk and talk is that it’s intimate without being intimidating,” explains Belinda Pervan, co-lead of the Singapore chapter. “When combined with the inspiration of being outside in nature and the physical benefits of walking, it’s the perfect mix for having good conversations.”

To boost rapport, mentors and mentees are matched according to the issues they wish to discuss. “If it’s about furthering your career while managing a family, we’ll assign you to someone who’s done that,” Belinda says. “It’s incredibly important for us to have a really diverse group of mentors with significant lived experience to ensure that these walks have a positive impact on participants.”

Like Ms Ng, Belinda believes that female mentorship is integral to women’s success in the workplace. “Women mentoring women is so important. It helps them gain access to opportunities and cultivates their confidence in an often still male-dominated business environment,” she says. Her fellow co-lead Aliza Knox sums it up: “Having a strong network and access to advice is profoundly important in the career progression of women.”

As Shana would attest: “We women tend to overthink our decisions sometimes, and many of us suffer from imposter syndrome. Having a mentor helps to ground ourselves and to dispel these negative emotions. A good mentor will not only be able to dish out the tough business advice, but also help to tune our soft skills and guide us in managing toxic thought patterns to emerge more confident than ever.”

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