By Christine Megson, coordinator of the Fabian Women mentoring programme.
This post originally appeared on the Fabian Women blog.
A timely but chance encounter led to the creation of the Fabian Women’s Network (FWN) Mentoring and Political Education Programme. When I met Felicity a student studying politics and French at an annual FWN reception, I asked the obvious What Next question. For women interested in politics without role models at home or local networks there is no easy way of knowing what answers you can give to this question. Even if you are clear on what you want to achieve, the route can be difficult to navigate and particularly so if you live outside London.
As I looked round the room of Fabian women and saw members of the cabinet, MPs, the prime minister’s wife, peers, chief executives of charities and a campaigner against child poverty, I realised the answer was in the room. Within the FWN there exists massive social and intellectual capital just waiting to be tapped and Fabians tend to share the same values. I was a mentor at the time and realised how powerful the process could be. Felicity and I approached Seema Malhotra, FWN director, and the planning of the first mentoring programme began. 75 amazing women in three cohorts have benefited to date.
The aims of the programme are to increase women’s political understanding and the impact and influence of women in politics and public life. There are many women who we see as having “made it” in that they have got to the “top” in their chosen field, but the common theme they relate to us is that it was a harder journey than it should have been and took a longer period of time. They recount the difficulties of navigating choices, often without empathy from work colleagues, not knowing who to ask for advice, and the challenges of work/life balance that women tend to face more than men at different stages of their lives.
We knew that in addition to mentoring we needed to organise a flexible skills training programme based on a robust political skills framework Seema devised from her own experience. We use the power of place so participants can feel what it is like to sit round the Shadow Cabinet Room table or gain confidence in talking about Europe from sitting in the European Parliament. The model needs consistent support with invaluable input from Caroline Adams from the Parliamentary Labour Party but draws on expertise from within the group.
The strength of the peer network is the backbone of the programme and is what will sustain it for years to come. At each induction there is immediate respect of the sheer wealth of experience and diversity in the room. As planned, we have attracted women from their 20s to their 60s, from different social class and ethnic backgrounds and all sectors of employment. This remains a strong objective so we widen the range and appeal of the scheme. A ‘buddying’ system from earlier cohorts allows new mentees to extend their networks.
Since the programme began nearly 30 women have put themselves up for selection at local, national and European level, often earlier than planned; a number have become trustees of charities and many have rapidly gained promotion at work. They have published articles and spoken at conferences and in the media. Each of these has acted as a role model and inspiration to the rest of the group. There are regular opportunities to manage or support each other’s campaigns.
On 21st January we are delighted to be launching the evaluation report produced by Professor Joni Lovenduski and Dr Rosie Campbell of Birkbeck, University of London. They have measured the progress made by the women in the first two cohorts, analysed the success of the programme through focus groups and interviews and their observations on the challenge of funding and the need for a wider geographic pool provide us with a clear steer for an even more successful future.
Additionally we have been capturing the views of mentees to illustrate their progress:
“The programme came at a really timely moment as I was considering standing for election as a local ward councillor. The elements of the programme were excellent for educating and empowering me to take a route into public life. My mentor taught me how to do it on my own terms. More than that, it facilitated a brilliant network of like minded women who have continued to be a valuable sounding board and source for motivation to continue in public life”. Eleanor
“The FWN mentoring scheme had a really significant impact on me. As a young woman who had recently moved to London doing a commercial job I didn’t love, the knowledge sessions, networks, and relationship with my mentor gave me the confidence to switch careers into politics. To have a shadow cabinet minister give me an hour of her time to update my CV and practice interview questions was amazing!” Kate
“Without a doubt I would not be the Labour candidate for Manchester city centre in next year’s local elections or the co-founder of Fabian Women North West without taking part in the FWN mentoring scheme. The scheme provided me not only with essential skills to run for public office, but most importantly the confidence and support to actually carry it out. From walking the halls of European Parliament to eating Pringles in the shadow cabinet office in Westminster, the mentoring scheme gave me an invaluable insight into the real world of politics and opened the seemingly closed doors that surround public life. Being part of the FWN mentoring scheme taught me that if you want to see progress and change you have to be part of that yourself. The scheme points to the glass ceiling and hands you the hammer to break it down.” Beth.
Applications for the next cohort open in March