Mentors are key to women succeeding in leadership

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Mentorship was a key theme at the Women Leaders in Global Health Conference in London this month, hosted by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, when speakers discussed how to help more women reach leadership positions in the global health and development sector. The word “mentorship” often denotes a very structured and formal relationship. However, the women leaders who spoke with Devex revealed that mentorship commonly takes shape in a much more subtle and informal arrangement.

Women don’t need to rely on formal mentorship programs to benefit from the guidance of peers. Here is a roundup of advice from women leaders who have benefitted from mentoring on how to find and make the most of mentorship opportunities.

 “For me, a mentor is someone who believes in you when you don’t believe enough in yourself.”

— Dr. Joanne Liu, international president at Médecins Sans Frontières

A mentor is someone who believes in you

Wafaa El-Sadr, global director of ICAP at Columbia University, acts as a mentor to two women at earlier stages in their careers. In addition to offering advice and support, mentors can also help mentees progress their careers through finding suitable workshops, trainings, and networking opportunities, El-Sadr explained, from her own experience of being a mentor.

Speaking fondly of one mentee, El-Sadr said: “She’s a remarkable person who has done amazing work … but I feel like she’s always done it behind the scenes … and over the past couple of years, I’ve taken it upon myself to find opportunities for her.”

As well as seeking help from mentors, Dr. Joanne Liu, international president at Médecins Sans Frontières, offers informal mentorship herself. “There’s a few people I have under my watch and I make sure they keep going,” she said. “For me, a mentor is someone who believes in you when you don’t believe enough in yourself.”

As a mentor, Liu said that she won’t necessarily tell people what they want to hear. But “On the other hand, I’m human … and if they’re in a vulnerable moment, or a rough patch, I might spur them a little bit.”

Diversity in perspective

Mentors can give very specialized or technical advice for a specific sector, said El-Sadr, which mentees may not be able to gain from other avenues of support.

Liu also advised women to seek out multiple mentors in order to receive alternative perspectives — such as those from different cultural, philosophical, political and professional backgrounds, as well those both older and younger.


For content on bridging the gap between commitment and action to advance women’s leadership in development.

“I have people that I seek advice from and they are 20 or 25 years younger than me, and the reason why, is I believe in the wisdom of youth … and it’s funny because they’re so young and they see things so differently that it actually enlightens me to a certain extent.”

While Liu advised women to seek out mentors with differing opinions and backgrounds, Marta Tufet, executive director at UKCDR said that some women actually need mentors who are more similar to themselves and who they can relate to more personally — particularly earlier on in their career. Reaching out to like-minded others to act as mentors can help and offer a different angle to a superior who’s harder to relate to.

This is particularly true for young female students in health, where leaders, academics, and role models tend to be men, which gives preconceptions of what leaders should look like, Tufet said. Women should seek out female role models and go for leadership positions, she said; it’s needed in order to break the cycle of male managers.

“Don’t be afraid to defy expectations,” she said.

Mentoring is for everyone

A common misconception is that mentoring only benefits young professionals seeking advice. But mentoring also benefits the mentor and is equally sought after by even the most senior experienced professionals.

Due to greater responsibility, Liu reaches out to mentors much more now than she did earlier on in her career, she said.

Additionally, mentorships aren’t only valuable for the mentees, said El-Sadr. She gets “enormous satisfaction” from being a mentor.

It has also helped El-Sadr to become a better leader and improve her ability to prioritize. “Because when that person reaches out to me, it has to become a priority … because it’s really important for them and their career,” she said.

How can we bridge the gap between commitment and action to advance women’s leadership in development? #GlobalDevWomen Leadership Weeks explores tips for professionals and organizations on how to reach gender parity through advice articles, op-eds from industry leaders, online events, and a virtual career fair for mid-senior level women professionals.

Update, Nov. 19, 2018: This article has been updated to clarify that Wafaa El-Sadr is the global director of ICAP at Columbia University.
Update, Nov. 20, 2018: This article has been updated to clarify that the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine hosted the Women Leaders in Global Health Conference in London.

About the author

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    Lottie Watters

    Lottie Watters is a Reporting and Communications Associate based in Barcelona. She focuses on bringing the latest career and hiring trends, tips, and insights to Devex’s global development audience. Lottie is a recent graduate with a background in geography and journalism, taking a particular interest in grassroots international development projects. She has worked with organizations delivering clean water and sanitation projects globally.