The finding crops up repeatedly in studies and surveys: Women aren’t getting the mentoring that might help them succeed at work.
The question is: Why not?
Lack of time, mentors’ fear they don’t have enough expertise, and mentees’ reluctance to ask to be taken under senior women’s wings were among the reasons outlined in a March 2014 paper from Development Dimensions International (DDI), a Pennsylvania-based global human resources consulting firm.
For years, research and experts have pointed to mentoring as key to helping women advance at work, whether that means earning promotions and higher pay, making contacts that can help them advance professionally, or being shown the ins and outs of an organization so they can navigate an office’s politics, personalities and processes.
Given that understanding, one would think junior women would aggressively pursue mentors, and that senior women would actively recruit mentees. But that’s not happening, according to DDI’s research, which is outlined in Women as Mentors: Does She or Doesn’t She? The research was based on a survey of 318 businesswomen from 19 countries and 30 industries. The respondents’ average age was 48, and 75 percent indicated that they were mid- or senior-level leaders at their organizations.
DDI found that “a staggering 63 percent of the survey group” never had a mentor, even though 67 percent of respondents ranked mentoring as important to career success.
“Our research found that women do not avoid taking on mentorships because of competition,” said Tacy M. Byham, senior vice president of DDI’s Leadership Solutions Group, in an e-mail interview. “In other words, the real world is nothing like the competitive scenarios outlined in movies like ‘Working Girl’ or ‘The Devil Wears Prada.’ ”
In fact, ranking lowest as a concern among respondents when asked whether they would mentor was “office politics” and “internal competition,” with only 8 percent saying the former was an issue for them and only 2 percent saying the latter was a concern.
Instead, the No. 1 problem for women in the study was lack of time. Seventy-five percent of women reported that the time it takes to mentor most affects their decision to accept mentorships. Yet, only 1 in 10 chose not to mentor because it interfered with family time or other commitments.
Another thing preventing women from agreeing to be mentors is that they believe they don’t have the expertise to take on this role, the survey found. More than half the respondents (54 percent) said they considered whether they had enough expertise before agreeing to mentor another woman.
“In 2008, Hewlett Packard did a bit of research that has always resonated with me,” Byham said. “[It] showed that women apply for open jobs only if they think they meet 100 percent of the criteria listed, whereas men respond to the posting if they feel they meet 60 percent of the requirements.”
In addition, the DDI research found, junior women aren’t approaching senior men or women about being mentored. More than half the respondents said they have been asked to be a mentor only a few times, while 20 percent said they’d never been asked.
“Women are still not seeking out mentors for themselves,” Byham said. “It’s not because [mentors] aren’t willing; it’s because they aren’t being asked. If [junior women] are afraid of rejection, they don’t need to be. According to our research, the odds of a mentorship invitation being accepted are in their favor.”
In fact, 71 percent of women in the study reported that they always accept invitations to be formal mentors at work. And, overwhelmingly, women reported that they would mentor more if they were asked.
The survey also found that women have difficulty building workplace “social capital,” which DDI defined as relationship networks people have that allow a group to function effectively.
“Men tend to have more senior-level men in [their networks] and thus more social capital simply because there are more senior-level men than women in these key positions,” Byham said.
A 2002 University of California-Irvine paper titled Social Networks and Job Search Outcomes Among Male and Female Professional, Technical, and Managerial Workers studied groups of men and women and tracked census data to identify patterns in the way the sexes network.
The researchers discovered that while men and women tend to build networks comprising people of their own gender, women tried to ensure their networks were about 50 percent female, while men's networks included very few women.
“Because men hold 80 percent of the jobs in senior management … they are more likely to hear about job openings at the senior-management level,” Byham said. “Men pass the news on to their mostly male social networks, and it is likely that news about the job opening reaches women only after it has reached and passed several men.”
Half of survey participants worked at organizations with formal mentoring programs. Of those that did, training was often ineffective. Only 1 in 5 women in the study rated the quality of the formal training they received as high or very high, and another 22 percent received no formal training at all.
“Mentoring works best when there is a contract between the mentor and mentee as to expectations for the relationship, much like what you would expect if you were paying for an external executive coach,” Byham said. “In a contract, responsibilities, timeline and how to involve the manager in the process are all key.
“The other thing that really works is visibility and process tension. I have been formally mentored by three leaders at DDI. I am now a mentor to two junior leaders. Every year, [I] formally report on the progress made by my two mentees. I can’t very well say, ‘Well, [my mentee] got really busy, so we haven’t really made any progress’ in front of my fellow executives.”
Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
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