Coalition of Labor Union Women
  • CLUW Urges Chapters, Local Unions to Create Mentoring Circles – an Effective Tool to Advance Women in the Workplace and in the Union

    Mentoring is a widely recognized tool for job, career and union development, particularly for women. Mentoring circles, as discussed at the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) education conference in April, offer a powerful and accessible variation on the traditional mentor/mentee model. As noted by CLUW President Connie Leak, it is no surprise that CLUW is an active advocate of both practices.

    This article, based on a workshop at the CLUW conference, focuses on what mentoring circles are and why CLUW is encouraging its chapters and union women's committees to initiate them — as well as how to create and sustain them.

    The Association for Women in Science defines mentoring circles as "a small group committed to meeting regularly and supporting one another with advice, encouragement and information" with a particular focus on "career growth and problem-solving...."

    As CLUW Pres. Leak observed, "Some of us have been lucky to have had a mentor…to have been taken under the wing of a more senior advisor/mentor — someone who taught us the ropes, the 'unspoken' rules, the unwritten politics of the union.” 

    "Unfortunately, for women and minorities, what I have just described is most often the exception rather than the rule, as most mentors are men and we know that men — when they look for mentors — most often seek out a mentee who looks like them or looked like them 25 years ago.  That excludes many women and minorities....”

    CLUW members discuss mentoring circles as a way to educate and engage members and potential members.

    Realizing that women and minorities are often short-changed when it comes to mentoring, the Berger-Marks Foundation provided a grant to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research a few years ago to support the creation of a handbook to help unions and other labor organizations create formal (or "intentional") mentoring programs. The overarching purpose of the effort is to support the development and accessibility of mentoring relationships, especially for women and minorities.

    The handbook, The Next Generation: A Handbook for Mentoring Future Union Leaders, focuses on the creation of mentoring programs, including mentoring circles. (The handbook is available online, as well as in hard copy, from the Foundation.  Mentoring circles, according to The Next Generation, can be easier to launch and maintain than a one-on-one program, which requires more ongoing direction and coordination.

    Each mentoring circle is made up of a small group of peers (6–10 people) and led by a facilitator. A number of circles can be held at the same place and time, and conversations outside of the circle and networking are encouraged. The handbook notes that refreshments often draw participants.

    Mentoring circles are especially effective for women, as studies show that many women are more familiar with and participate more readily in women-only programs, such as book groups, women's groups affiliated with religious organizations and union-based women’s committees. The circles also provide an effective programming and recruitment tool for CLUW chapters and local union women’s committees.

    CLUW urges its chapters and union women's committees to create "subject-focused" circles. The subject-focused circles can use materials available online (including a 4–12 minute video) and address such subjects as:

    • "What Works for Women at Work" (identifies patterns of gender bias and teaches strategies to overcome them and succeed at work),
    • "Power and Influence" (teaches the body language of power to increase influence),
    • "Taming Adrenaline: Overcoming Speaker Anxiety" (explains the causes of speaking anxiety to help overcome fear in meetings, presentations and more), and
    • "Planning for Work/Life Balance" (offers strategies for achieving greater work/life balance, including setting priorities and letting go of perfection).

    Most subjects come with a discussion guide and a book list on the topic. (See: The Clayman Institute for Gender Research [Stanford University] and its sister site, LeanIn.

    At the conclusion of the CLUW workshop, where participants viewed and discussed "What Works for Women at Work" (11 minutes, 35 seconds), one Electrical Worker (IBEW) participant exclaimed, “I learned information that is very useful — which I can use when I go back to my local.  (I felt like) a light bulb came on!”  She was so inspired that she promised to start a mentoring circle in her CLUW chapter, as well as in her local.

    Most unions currently don’t offer formal mentoring programs. Both CLUW and Berger-Marks leadership are hopeful that labor educators will use this mentoring circle model to develop union-focused curricula (i.e. mobilizing members, outreach to the community/allies). Many of the above-mentioned subjects are useful to individual and groups of union women. Mentoring circles, whether in a CLUW chapter or in a local union, also can be a vehicle to activate current members, as well as entice new members.

    Update: Since the CLUW education conference, the CLUW Greater New Jersey Chapter’s April 23 education conference featured a presentation on mentoring circles, led by Federal Mediation & Conciliation Service Commissioner Vanessa Bullock.

    Editor’s note:  Carolyn Jacobson, who is secretary-treasurer of the Berger-Marks Foundation and a founding member of CLUW, would be happy to familiarize union women who are not familiar with mentoring circles about them and provide materials, as well as advice for getting a circle started.  Carolyn can be reached care of CLUW at 202-508-6901 or at

    Page Last Updated: May 16, 2016 (10:22:03)
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