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Do women need a mentor to succeed?

4 min read


Every young professional hears it: “Get a mentor!” Many companies invest in mentoring programs, especially for women aspiring to advance. But do mentor programs pay off –– for the mentors and the mentees? My clients and I have had positive experiences, but, who knows? Maybe we’re not typical?

Nope. (Whew!) The data is pretty clear that getting a mentor helps both women and men climb the corporate ladder, and anecdotal evidence (including mastermind groups) points to its effectiveness for entrepreneurs as well. However, when you dig into the data, it’s also clear that mentoring helps some folks more than others.

“My mentor helped me learn to listen for the real meaning behind what people are saying and I learned with his support to ask probing questions. He has given me the room to try things, make mistakes and discover my own style,” says Katherine Pasco Larsen. Many mentees report this kind of benefit from mentoring relationships in their companies, and anyone who’s worked to understand their corporate culture and how to succeed in it will recognize the benefit of such support. Ismenia Seize gained insights as well as confidence in her London job, learning to speak up and stand out in company meetings through a virtual mentoring relationship with Marion Chapsal, based in Lyon, France.

Women in particular report finding mentoring helpful to learn to understand their own value and gain confidence in how they present themselves.

But the data says even though women are mentored earlier and more often in their careers, men appear to benefit more from mentoring relationships, often by securing mentors in more senior positions. Data from Catalyst suggest that the mentor’s seniority, more than gender or talent, determines the degree to which the mentoring relationship actually helps the mentee advance.

In fact, a special form of mentorship — sponsorship — really seems to the primary factor in how such relationships can help you get promoted and considered. Sponsors not only mentor their youthful partners, they “promote you and your accomplishments to others in your workplace and/or industry,” says Joanne Kamens. “This is a mutual relationship because if you’re performing well in roles you obtained with the support of your sponsor, you make the sponsor look good, too.”

Mentoring programs also help to the extent they are proactive in matching pairs who can help each other. Deb Evans reports that when she matched entrepreneurial mentors well, the mentees often saw their sales improve and that the mentors reported receiving new and fresh ideas from their younger counterparts. Intra-company programs and independent groups like 3PlusInt, which matched Ismenia and Marion, can all be helpful in bringing mentors and mentees together, but most women I know who’ve had good mentors were also proactive in finding their own mentors and developing relationships over time.

Valarie Sparks reports that her best mentoring relationship began over 11 years ago and continues to support her today. Several years ago, her mentor encouraged her to switch from hotel operations to sales. “He had faith in me and told me I’d be great at it. I’ve been in sales ever since and now train and consult others on how to be successful,” Sparks says.

Even though mentoring is an effective career development strategy, it does not replace the need to learn to advocate for yourself, particularly for women. The Catalyst report cited above noted that even after accounting for experience, industry and region, high-potential men were promoted more often and received a 21% increase in their promotions, compared with 2% for women. Another Catalyst report suggested that one of the major strategies women can deploy in closing this gap is to learn to promote themselves more effectively. For most women, that means learning to do so in ways that feel authentic to them as opposed to “bragging.”

The bottom line is that mentoring is particularly good for mentees and mentors when the following occurs:

  • The pair maintains the relationship (Sparks suggest that the mentee take on the burden of logistics).
  • The mentor is highly placed and on the lookout for opportunities to proactively help their mentee shine (benefiting them both).
  • The menteee does not cede personal responsibility for advancing his or her career to the mentor/sponsor.

What’s your experience? Any other lessons to pass on? Leave your comments below, or tweet @DanaTheus.