The completion of my term as the Director-General of the Commonwealth Foundation last year, provided a moment to reflect on the things I had achieved and the things that I hadn’t. Of course, the second list was way longer than the first. It had the makings of an existential to-do list. I had just established a small consulting practice, working as an independent adviser connecting dialogue, development and democracy, when the pandemic struck. I found that I had time to tackle that list.
At the Commonwealth Foundation I felt that as a team we had made progress in embedding gender equality in our programmes and operations. We could see that the journey was a continuing one and that leadership was essential as we traversed the terrain. This pause for thought triggered a sense that while I had done good, I knew I could do better.
In March I was approached by colleagues at the International Trade Centre (ITC) asking whether I would be willing to participate in their mentoring programme for women. The programme had been designed in recognition of the importance of creating an enabling work environment, and a culture of inclusion to promote gender equality. It aimed to reinforce women’s visibility and involvement at all levels in the organisation. Mentoring was seen as a means of providing women with opportunities to build networks, strengthen skill sets and focus on their personal and professional goals.
The team at ITC recruited about 60 women who were looking to be mentored. Any woman with a contractual relationship to ITC (or an ITC partner organisation) could participate. The counterpart mentors were drawn from the wider ITC community – of any gender or stage in their career. The ITC team looked beyond the immediate staff list and made provision for a category of mentors called “fortifiers.” These external mentors were engaged from other UN entities or civil society and committed to gender parity, diversity and inclusion in their professional and personal lives. This model enabled the programme to tap into an extensive network, rich in knowledge, skills and experience.
I was asked whether I would be interested in joining the programme as a “fortifier.” I frowned. I had been sceptical about mentoring – perhaps because I had seen too many self-appointed mentors. But this was different. When the team described the programme to me it was clear that mutual learning was at its core. It was a mentoring exchange rather than a conventional top-down model. Programme design was guided by three principles: that everyone could be a mentor, regardless of their age or position in the hierarchy; that mentoring is a mutual learning experience; and that both parties can actively contribute to the other’s development and learning.
The profiles of the 80 potential mentors were shared with mentees who could then select a potential partner. Stuck with my preconceived notions of mentoring, I wondered initially whether anyone would choose me. After all I was an outsider – a man without ITC experience. I need not have worried – the programme’s principles translated well into practice and I was paired with several colleagues.
We are now three months into the programme and I cannot speak highly enough of it. It has provided me with room to reflect. Listening to participants, I have gained a keen appreciation of the privileges I have taken for granted in my professional life as a man. As an advocate I thought I was aware of patriarchy and the power relations that underpin gender inequality. But this was abstract and academic. Through the programme’s structured engagements with colleagues I have become more aware of the individual, societal and organisational barriers that women navigate while making a career in international organisations. As a man it never occurred to me that I could not or would not progress or succeed.
In turn I have started to think more about the part that men need to play as we move towards gender equality. I can see that the resistance to gender equality is hard wired. I can also see that it comes from different places and is rooted in diverse experiences. I will be better at understanding where opposition to equality is coming from and advocating change because through the mentoring programme, I have heard first-hand accounts of the many overt and implicit ways that women are being hindered.
I am grateful to the ITC for inviting me to contribute to the mentoring programme. While it has been designed to improve the prospects of the women that are participating, I can see that the secret to the programme’s success lies in its emphasis on creating a space for mutual learning and exchange. In challenging the assumption that valued experience resides solely with mentors, this initiative walks the talk on gender equality and I am pleased to be a part of it.