Due to Covid-19, we are all facing uncertainty and change in our personal and professional lives. It is more important than ever to stay in touch with people in your professional circle and get support from mentorship programmes. We recently spoke with Susan Durbin and Stella Warren who are founding members of the alta mentoring scheme, a bespoke industry-wide mentoring programme designed for women/by women, in the aviation and aerospace industry, and also Rosalind Azouzi who is a key member of the alta Steering Committee, also offering administrative support for alta, on behalf of the Society. They have answered our questions about the platform, the importance of having a mentor and their advice in these unprecedented times.
Susan Durbin is Professor of Employment Studies/Human Resource Management, at Bristol Business School, UWE Bristol. She specialises in researching women’s employment in male dominated areas. She has published her work in a number of leading academic journals and is the author of, Women Who Succeed: strangers in Paradise? (2015) published by Palgrave Macmillan. Susan works with organisations in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors, to improve gender equality and support for women. She is also an active member of the Bristol Women’s Commission Women in Business Task Group, a Trustee with Fair Play South West, the gender equality network, and a member of the Women in Aviation and Aerospace Women’s Committee at the Royal Aeronautical Society. She is a Chartered member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.
Stella Warren is a Research Fellow in the Bristol Leadership and Change Centre with a background in applied social research. She supports a wide range of research project teams within Bristol Business School and also teaches research methods at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. Her expertise includes social marketing and the understanding of psychological pathways for behaviour change in health; gender and inequality in organisations; the gender pay gap; and women working in male-dominated industries. She is a member of the British and European Sociological Association and on the board of the Research Network ‘Gender Relations, Labour Markets and the Welfare State (RN14).
Rosalind Azouzi is Head of Skills and Careers at the Royal Aeronautical Society. Rosalind supports the talent pipeline into the industry, from outreach programs for school children, to careers advice and support for early career professionals. Rosalind has a remit over the wider skills agenda, with a focus on diversity and inclusion. She sits on a number of committees and groups, including the Women in Aviation and Aerospace Committee, The Women in Aviation and Aerospace Charter and the Aerospace Growth Partnership.
What is the alta mentoring scheme?
Launched on International Women’s Day (8th March) in 2019, the alta mentoring platform is the first scheme of its kind operating in the global aviation and aerospace industry. It is the result of a one year, ESRC-funded Knowledge Exchange project and the matched financial and in-kind contributions from the industry partners (The Royal Aeronautical Society, Airbus and the Royal Air Force). The year-long project involved research led by Professor Susan Durbin and Stella Warren (UWE Bristol) and Dr Ana Lopes (Newcastle University) to design and launch a mentoring scheme designed, ‘for women/by women’. The aim was to provide a mentoring scheme for professional women across the industry, based upon what women wanted from mentoring with an industry wide mentoring platform, to provide career and social support and build a community of women across the industry.
In practical terms, any professional women in the industry wishing to join alta, registers to join with the Royal Aeronautical Society and the request is moderated by RAeS staff. Once the applicant is accepted, they will receive an email and asked to sign in (creating a password) and complete a series of matching questions. The in-built algorithm sorts through the mentee’s answers to these questions and comes up with the top three mentor matches (mentors also complete the same set of matching questions). The mentee then decides which mentor to approach and makes a request through the system. Once the mentee and mentor are matched, they decide how and when to meet. Alta is a safe and secure environment, through which communications and meeting dates can be organised. There are supporting materials, such as an alta handbook, videos and mentor/mentee training.
What are the benefits of having an online mentor/what does online mentorship usually involve?
There are a number of benefits to having a mentor, especially for women who work in male dominated environments, such as the aviation and aerospace sector. The sector has a skills shortage, which could be partly addressed through the recruitment and retention of more women (women comprise just 4% of pilots and 10% of engineers in this industry, with very few occupying senior leadership positions). Mentoring can therefore be a key retention tool as women who have mentors can feel a sense of belonging, feel more valued, gain the support they need to progress their careers and make use of a ‘safe space’ where they can talk to a trusted mentor, about personal and work related challenges. Despite these benefits of mentoring, it is a rare resource for many women in male dominated sectors, which alta was designed to address.
On-line mentoring platforms, such as alta, have several advantages in comparison to face-to-face mentoring, including the exchange of knowledge, development of individual capabilities and sharing of identiﬁcation with the mentor’s expertise. There is a body of academic research that highlights the benefits of on-line mentoring platforms. These include online mentoring transcending organisational and geographical boundaries, making it widely accessible and a benefit to under-represented groups; increased interaction between mentors and mentees; easier access to information; and feeling supported. It is also important to note, however, that online communication can be more impersonal and if mentoring is provided solely online, the support provided by the mentor can be less useful. This makes blended mentoring schemes that combine face-to-face and online facilities, such as alta, ideal.
Online women’s spaces can be less of a challenge as they offer a ‘virtual’ and convenient means through which women can connect and support one another. They can help address marginalisation, isolation and exclusion and ensure that they are comfortable expressing their needs in a ‘woman to woman’ environment. They can also be a means by which to challenge the male dominance of workplaces.
Given the current situation with many people working from home due to Coronavirus, how can a mentor best be utilised?
The alta mentoring platform offers mentors and mentees the opportunity to connect via the platform and to join the alta ‘community’, thereafter leaving mentors and mentees free to choose how they conduct their mentoring, e.g. face-to-face or virtually. Alta members are, in this time of unprecedented crisis, able to enjoy the benefits of the alta on-line mentoring platform. It enables alta members to stay connected and to reach out for help and support when it is most needed.
The value of on-line mentoring has never been so important and it may also become a time for mentors and mentees to take stock of where they are in their careers and where they would like to go; a time for reflection and a re-assessment of where they are and where want to be. Mentoring is a great way to do that. It also gives mentors the opportunity to reach out to other women and even take on some additional mentoring, offering help to those women who most need their support. Mentors can therefore best be utilised via the alta platform, at a safe distance but offering comfort and advice to women who may be feeling especially isolated, vulnerable or lacking confidence if their roles have been furloughed. Or they may simply want to reach out and turn the current situation into a more positive one.
What successes has alta seen?
Alta is embedded into the Royal Aeronautical Society’s careers service and meeting its commitment to achieving gender equality throughout the industry. It is now part of the mentoring ‘offer’ of the founding partners (Airbus, The Royal Air Force and the Royal Aeronautical Society) and in addition, just over 300 individual women have already signed up as mentors and mentees from across the industry. A number of high-profile industry organisations have also joined (e.g. GKN, Safran Landing Systems, Collins Aerospace, Airbus) each making a financial contribution to the scheme, to support its associated member networking events and activities.
A number of additional high-profile organisations are also in the process of signing up. Alta is gradually bringing together competitor companies in the industry, as well as professional women who would otherwise not be in contact. A number of alta networking events have also been held since its launch, including a ‘speed mentoring’ session and a social event in London and an alta promotion/networking event at the UWE Bristol. The team feel it is also important to retain face-to-face mentoring and networking events when the current lockdown is lifted as this enables women to re-focus on their career and personal development as well as make new friends and contacts.
What challenges has alta come across?
During the research phase of the project, the project group, comprising academics and industry partners, operated mostly by consensus, but some challenges between the academic and industry worlds were inevitable. For example, one of the main challenges arose from assumptions around timeframes that needed to be negotiated. While the academic team were used to developing long-term projects, the business partners were used to implementing projects in a matter of months. There was also an on-going process by which participants came to understand – and shape – the role of the researchers within the project as a whole, as well as their own role as project co-owners. As it was the first time most participants engaged with this type of project, finding one’s own role within the project group was a process rather than a given. While the researchers were mostly accustomed to doing research on people, the other participants were accustomed to having people (e.g. consultants) provide a service for them.
Since its launch, the challenge has been to roll alta out to the industry, without saturating the market. The decision was taken to approach a small number of industry employers at a time and open up the scheme to their female professional employees, without inundating the system. This approach has proved fruitful, but it has meant that alta has grown more gradually than we would have liked. Other challenges have involved the initial pilot roll out of alta, to the founding partners, and realizing that more work needed to be done. For example, after piloting, some minor changes were made to the matching questions.
There is a need to gain further funding support for alta, going forward, which will prove to be more of a challenge due to the impact of Covid-19 on the sector. In spite of this, the aim is to maintain the platform, with its free access, to individual women and to encourage organisations within the industry to offer their financial support at a time when their female employees really need it. The alta platform is cost-effective and offers a safe and secure site for women to support one another.
Is now a good time to become a mentor or seek a mentor?
During the current pandemic, the restrictions on movement and new ways of working remotely have resulted in a physical disconnect from family, friends and colleagues. For those who already have an established mentoring relationship, this can be a crucial source of support, facilitating an opportunity for both mentor and mentee to discuss concerns and keep connected during this unprecedented time.
Any time is a good time to become or seek a mentor but in the current Covid-19 climate, it has never been so important. Mentoring via the alta platform is not only beneficial to the mentees who utilise it, but also for the development of mentors. Even more importantly, alta offers the opportunity to commence and continue safe mentoring, at a social distance, and to help to overcome feelings of isolation. It offers a space and time for reflection and the continued building of the alta community.
A huge thank you to Susan, Stella and Rosalind for their input in this blog. If you would like to find out more about the alta mentoring platform you can watch our webinar on the subject here, and visit the alta website here.