Peggy Drexler Ph.D.

Our Gender, Ourselves

Can Women Succeed Without A Mentor?

Women have a more difficult time finding mentors than men

Posted Dec 26, 2014

Studies show that historically women have reported a more difficult time finding mentors than men do, which has led to a number of mentoring networks aimed specifically at connecting women with female mentors. In a 2010 World Economic Forum report on corporate practices for gender diversity in 20 countries, 59 percent of the companies surveyed said they offer internally led mentoring and networking programs, and 28 percent said they have women-specific programs. But with women squarely positioned as the driving force behind U.S. labor force growth—projected to account for 51 percent of the increase in total growth through 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Labor—what will happen when there aren’t enough mentors to go around? A 2011 report by McKinsey Research pointed out that women are claiming 53 percent of entry-level management jobs, but after that, the numbers drop: to 37 percent for mid-managers, and even lower, to 26 percent, for vice presidents and up.

Women are already feeling the impact. According to a 2011 survey of more than 1,000 working women conducted by networking site LinkedIn, 1 out of 5 women say they’ve never had a mentor at work. The comparatively low numbers of female managers to females in entry levels offers one explanation. Another: those women who remain in the workforce often feel too strapped for time. A 2000 article from the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology reported that those women who were both leaders and had family responsibilities were the ones that younger psychologists most wanted to emulate—but they were also those who had the least time to mentor. Another reason is women are reluctant to ask for mentors, even when they want them. Women’s networking organization Levo League conducted a survey of users and found that a whopping 95 percent had never sought out a mentor at work.

When women are younger,they often find an intern to take under their wing. But as they get older,and job and family responsibilities grow more complicated and time consuming, They discover they have a hard time placing mentoring others near the top of a priority list.

But there is a darker truth as well. In business, new, eager talent very often trumps experience.So in this way, women are afraid to give those below them too much good advice, though many hate admitting it. Some would like to say they are secure enough in their talent and abilities to be giving without reservation but feel threatened by giving away all the secrets to their successes.

This is an important point in the discussion of women mentoring women. Successful females are milder embodiments of Queen Bees—those career women who not only have zero interest in fostering the careers of other women who follow, but may actively attempt to cut them off at the pass. Queen Bees exist largely as a result of a still-patriarchal work culture in which comparatively few women rise to the top. And though not mentoring is quite different from actively undermining, both may operate from the same position of fear. And neither benefits the cause of workplace equality.Still,some argue that,for women, the simple act of mentoring may not even make a difference.

A 2010 study by Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that promotes inclusive workplaces for women, found that mentors benefited men more than women even when women are mentored earlier and more often in their careers. This is in part because men secure mentors in more senior positions. But it’s also because male mentors tend to sponsor rather than just mentor—similar to the difference between coaching and selling. In fact, a 2010 Harvard Business Review report argued that women may actually be over-mentored, but under-sponsored. And that sponsoring—advocating to get somebody a job or promotion, mentioning their name in an appointments meeting, actively helping that person advance—is what makes the real difference in women helping women get ahead. Mentoring is one thing, but actual follow-through is quite another; the difference between talk and action. And something that, as the rise in Queen Bees and Queen Bee-tinged behavior suggests, may be but a dream for women in the workplace.

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