Copenhagen, Denmark

Women at Work: the KVINFO Mentor Network


October 9, 2009

Mentoring that takes the "other" out of the picture

Relationships are the foundation for personal and professional success and for newcomers the challenge is often finding the people and establishing the networks that can answer questions and open doors to opportunities at work and in the wider community.

In Copenhagen, the Danish Centre for Information on Women and Gender, or KVINFO, has developed a unique mentoring programme to combat professional and social isolation among immigrant women.

The mentoring programme is considered one of the largest of its kind and began when KVINFO’s director, Elisabeth Møller Jensen had a vision of Denmark as “one big workplace and network of working women.” In 2003, she personally wrote to over 300 professional women across all sectors inviting their participation in a new mentoring program. At the time, the simple idea of matching refugee and immigrant women with their native Danish counterparts was something of an experiment since it was taken for granted that these women had little in common, little contact in their everyday life, and that they would have little interest in cultivating a relationship together.

Today the programme is 4,000 strong and growing.

KVINFO’s success owes much to the organization’s inclusive feminist mission as well as its willingness to experiment with a new approach to integrating immigrant women into Danish society. However the rapid success of their Mentoring Programme is also the result of good research and a practical approach to program design. KVINFO modelled their mentoring program on an existing one for skilled immigrants in Toronto and then adapted it in consultation with HR experts from the corporate sector.

The Mentor Network

KVINFOKVINFO recognized that networks are essential to enhanced career prospects. It is estimated that more than 50% of all job openings in Denmark are filled via personal networks. Through this program, mentees can access their mentor’s professional networks, but also benefit from their overall professional experience.

The KVINFO mentoring programme works by pairing up refugee and immigrant women with firmly established members of Danish society. Potential couples are matched based on the mentees’ education, professional and personal wishes.

KVINFO then encourages a mentor/mentee relationship that is based on a modified version of those used by the private sector in the US although the KVINFO approach is firmly anchored in the feminist values of mutual recognition, flat interpersonal power structures and a rigorous commitment to openness and inclusion that reflect the organization’s historical past.

Mentor and mentee meet approximately one a month. Together, the two parties draw up a contract and set specific goals to be accomplished within a fixed period of time, between 6 to 12 months. KVINFO staff actively track the progress of the relationship against the contract’s stated goals, stepping in to offer assistance or supplementary resources when needed.

This personalized support can better help the mentee’s transition into work. In addition, the Network offers informal meetings and workshops, in addition to the monthly meetings mentoring partners will already schedule with each other.

As staff member Beatriz Hernández remarks “when the concept of “the other” is taken out of the equation, everybody wins.”

Building on the power of relationships

KVINFO is also expanding beyond the general network matches with a special project to encourage greater political participation among immigrant and ethnic minority Danes. This additional outreach is part of a special project to recognise the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in Denmark.

In Copenhagen, while one in ten women is from an ethnic minority group, they only represent one in 55 city elected representatives. Furthermore, only two out of 179 of elected representatives in the Folketinget, the national parliament of Denmark, are from an ethnic minority background.

This mentoring project aims to bolster political participation and strengthen relationships between elected politicians and ethnic minority women up until the municipal elections in November 2009
Mentors have knowledge and experience in political activities, and mentees would either like an insight into political work or are already political engaged.

Similarly, KVINFO began another project in 2007 called, “Role Models through Life History” which is being done in collaboration with the mentor network. The national campaign highlights role models in Danish society and is an exhibition targeted specifically at ethnic minority women in Denmark. It features stories from 17 non-western immigrant women and their experiences in Denmark with the goal of having their stories inspire others to continue to work toward their goals with Danish society.

Founded in 1965, KVINFO’s main service began with its research library, which houses over 20,000 books and journals, political publications on equal opportunities and women’s issues. The year that it was founded, in 1965, was also the year in which a parliamentary commission was established to examine the role of women in modern society with the intention to propose new gender equality legislation.

With the Mentor Network, KVINFO is creating a new cross-cultural economic equality.

Currently the Mentor Network operates in four main offices and has inspired other networks within Denmark as well as in the Norwegian cities of Oslo and Trondheim.

The programme has also received the integration prize for the public labour market by the Ministry of Refugee Immigration and Integration Affairs, an award from a Danish women’s magazine in 2004 and has been highlighted as a positive initiative in integration by the OECD.

In September 2009 KVINFO launched a campaign aimed at male business owners with immigrant backgrounds. The campaign invites these entrepreneurs to support the Mentor Network through sponsorship or small donations; however, a strategic objective is also to increase public support for the participation of immigrant women in the workforce. The campaign represents a unique opportunity for cooperation between an established cultural institution and male business owners from minority communities. The donations will go to the funding of activities of the Mentor Network, including the conference, “Mentoring and Networking women building trust and social capital in our cities” in November 2009.

This Good Idea was identified by the Open Society Foundations’ At Home in Europe project as a good practice promoting inclusion, social cohesion and nondiscrimination. For more on this practice and the At Home in Europe project, read Living Together: Projects Promoting Inclusion in 11 EU Cities (OSF, 2011)

Making it Work for You:

  • Mentoring is an important development opportunity for newcomers, new staff and existing staff!  What if your organization doing in this area?
  • You do not have to a skilled professional to mentor a newcomer in your workplace or community. Mentoring improves language and communication skills, creates intercultural dialogue and helps foster a sense of belonging.
  • Use and adapt existing models of practice according to your organization's specific interests and goals.
  • Mentoring relationships benefit from the informality of open information exchange and the discipline of clear objectives and goals.

Themes: Mentoring, Work