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Mentoring Program Aims to Prepare Women for Workplace Challenges

Mentor Liz Sunde and student Lilly Ma talk at Umpleby’s Bakery in Hanover earlier this month. “It’s a great program,” Ma said. “(Working) is a whole new world for me, and she really helped me see what I’m getting in to.” (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

Mentor Liz Sunde and student Lilly Ma talk at Umpleby’s Bakery in Hanover earlier this month. “It’s a great program,” Ma said. “(Working) is a whole new world for me, and she really helped me see what I’m getting in to.” (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

Hanover — College graduates entering the workforce for the first time can find the experience to be daunting and confusing, and some new employees might find that they’ve made a wrong job choice or that they’ve locked themselves into a dead-end position with no chance to network with those who could further their careers.

For women graduates, the world of work can be even tougher than that of male employees.

In addition to the universal problems of many young workers, women entering the workforce today still face societal obstacles, perception issues and the cloud of sexual harassment, hurdles that have to be cleared on their way to advancement and finding equal pay for equal work, studies show.

To help address some of these issues, an Upper Valley networking group for professional women launched a pilot mentoring program last fall to help female college juniors and seniors be better prepared for their first jobs and to give them tips for avoiding some of the pitfalls of the working world.

Upper Valley Business Women and Dartmouth College’s Center for Women and Gender Studies joined in a program that paired 10 undergraduates with 10 of the area’s women professionals. The hour-a-week mentoring sessions allowed the businesswomen to share their working experiences and to help the students prepare for interviews, advise them on job choices and alert them to what they might face while working.

The women’s networking group initiated the program as community service and conducted the mentoring sessions during the fall, although some of the women are still meeting with students on an informal basis, said Rhiannon Hutchinson, who is the chair of the women’s group and organizer of the project.

“It went very well, and now that we have the pilot program behind us, we’re hoping to find funding and to do it again in the fall and to expand the group,” Hutchinson said.

Initially, it was difficult to recruit participants, so the number of groups was limited. “Now, we have the infrastructure, we hope to expand. We found that it was a valuable introduction to the business world for students, and the mentors found the time they invested to be really worthwhile. It also is helping provide businesses with better-prepared applicants,” she said.

The mentors were recruited from Hypertherm, Great Eastern Radio, Weight Watchers, the Quechee Club and from the ranks for entrepreneurs and consultants.

“For the students, it offered an opportunity that they don’t often get. They had time to speak with professional women and ask them questions about what they will be facing in the future,” said Jessica Jennrich, director of Dartmouth’s Center for Women and Gender Studies.

“They were able to talk about salary negotiations and what things will be like on the job. I think this will help these young women make it in the working world once they leave Dartmouth College,” she said.

Women working full-time are earning on average 80.9 cents for every dollar earned by a man working full-time, according to figures assembled from federal labor and Census reports by Catalyst, an international nonprofit organization with goals of expanding opportunities for women and business.

Here’s how some of the statistics break down:

The median average earnings for full-time, year-around women workers in 2010 was $36,931 compared with men’s $47,715.

In 2012, the median weekly earnings for full-time working women was $691, compared with $854 for men.

In 2012, the median weekly earnings for women in full-time management, professional and related occupations was $951 compared with $1,328 for men.

Women with doctoral degrees have median weekly earnings of $1,371 compared with $1,734 for men.

With professional degrees, women make $1,415 compared with $1,836 for men.

And although women make up almost 45 percent of the workforce, they represent only 4.2 percent of the management of Fortune 500 and Fortune 1,000 companies. They make up 14 percent of the top jobs of all U.S. corporations and represent 17 percent of corporate board membership.

The shortage of females in leadership positions may be tied to the way women are conditioned by social norms: often being differential to men, not assertively expressing opinions, avoiding being pegged as “too bossy” and having a conflicting desire to raise a family, experts say.

“Women face huge institutional barriers,” said Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, during a recent interview with Harvard Business Review. “But we also face barriers that exist within ourselves, sometimes the result of our socialization. (Some women) take themselves out of the running for career advancement because they want to have a family. But in some cases, they’re making these decisions years in advance — before they even have a partner. That should be the time they lean in, not pull back,” said Sandberg, whose new book Lean In is a call for women to act in their own behalf to overcome institutional and personal barriers to success.

At the beginning of the mentoring program, students were given a survey that asked them their confidence level on such job-related questions as finding work in a chosen field, writing a resume, discerning if a job is a good fit and handling harassment and conflict. At the end of the program, the students were given the survey again, and the results showed higher confidence levels in all categories, some rising from as low as 22 percent to 100 percent, Hutchinson said.

One student came into the program thinking she was headed for a job preferred by her parents, but not one she wanted, Hutchinson said. By the end of the sessions, the student was headed toward a more comfortable career choice.

Early in her working life, consultant and mentor Elizabeth Sunde, of Wilder, found some of her experiences “were quite sobering.

“I found that talking with (Dartmouth senior Lilly Ma) about what I’d gone through could be helpful to her as she looks forward. I’ve had a range of experiences that have built me, and talking about them was also therapeutic for me.

“I hope they do this again. I would take on another student. For me as a solo practitioner, it is so important for me to be grounded in what’s going on. This program is a touchstone for me with reality,” Sunde said.

Ma, who is going to work in investment banking with Bank of America/Merrill Lynch in New York City after she graduates in June, found the mentoring experience with Sunde very useful.

“It got me outside the Dartmouth community, where I just deal with other students and professors, and gave me a new perspective. She helped me a lot with understanding how to deal with office politics and how to network. It was very useful information about how to navigate the workplace,” Ma said.

In addition, the discussions about Sunde’s experience in nonprofits also made her begin thinking about eventually moving her career in that direction, Ma said, adding that she plans to follow Sunde’s suggestion and volunteer in her spare time with a nonprofit to increase her understanding.

“It’s a great program. It opened my eyes. … (Working) is a whole new world for me, and she really helped me see what I’m getting in to.”

Now that the pilot program has been completed, the sponsors are hoping to expand it not only at Dartmouth, but also at other area colleges, Hutchinson said.

“We’d like this to be a model for other schools across the country,” she said.

Warren Johnston can be reached at wjohnston@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.