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Lonely at the Top

Is mentoring the missing link between success and succession for businesswomen?
Lonely at the Top

Despite the influx of powerfully productive women into the workforce, there’s been little change in the female-to-male ratio at the top. Our new study, Women as Mentors: Does She or Doesn’t She? looks at why the glass ceiling still exists. We studied the “summiters”—women who struggled, but reached the peak—including Meg Whitman, Oprah Winfrey, and Hillary Clinton. All boast different backgrounds, educations, and careers, yet share one life-changing experience: Throughout their respective climbs, each received mentoring.

Our research grew from within. We are three women at different points in our careers, with mentoring experience ranging from none-at-all to coaching executives on mentoring best practices. With such diverse personal histories, we made the surprising discovery that all of us had unanswered questions about mentoring. Confident that other women also wanted answers, we commenced this study to learn more about female mentors.

We’ve long known that mentoring is a critical component of success. Mentoring not only broadens perspectives and teaches the nuances of business, but it also helps retain practical experience and wisdom for long-term employees. Additionally, mentoring aids professional development and elevates knowledge transfer.

Our study focused on the less-explored aspects of mentoring. We explored several questions, including: Who is responsible for broaching the mentoring conversation? Are women proactively initiating those conversations? Are women backing away from mentoring because they are selfishly protective of their careers? And, what will it take to make mentoring more commonplace?

To find answers, we surveyed 318 businesswomen in 19 countries and 30 different industries. The average age of the respondents was 48 years old, and 75 percent were either mid- or senior-level leaders (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Management levels of participants

Raising the Question

Women are still not comfortable asking for help. One female executive says that approaching a would-be mentor is “like walking up to someone and asking them to be your friend, and no one does that.” Although 78 percent of senior-level respondents have served as mentors, only a few have enlisted mentors of their own.

Willingness is not the problem. According to the hundreds of women surveyed, they would readily accept invitations to mentor if only they were asked. Fifty-four percent indicated that they’ve only been recruited a few times or less over the course of their careers. Add in the 20 percent that have never been asked, and the resultant number of missed development opportunities is staggeringly significant. There is a big disconnect: The large majority of the women we polled rated mentorship as highly important for career advancement and growth, yet only a few have pursued it.

Why So Quiet?

The study results reject the fear-of-rejection argument. And, contrary to persistent stereotypes that women are protective of their authority and positions, 80 percent of women agree that they mentor mainly to support other women. What’s more, almost as many agreed that they benefited from their own mentorship experiences.

With all the acknowledged benefits and willingness of participants, isn’t it time we had more women mentors? Not really, primarily because time is the problem. Seventy-five percent of women say that time commitment was the decisive criterion for accepting a mentoring assignment (Figure 2). Once engaged as mentors, however, most concurred that time was no longer an issue.

Subject matter expertise was another important consideration. Women demonstrated a reluctance to mentor when they felt less-than-expert on a specific topic. However, according to research conducted by Harvard Business Review, mentees seek help not with technical or subject matters, but with leadership. At the C-suite level, mentees are more interested in developing skills for influencing, working through problems, negotiating, and communicating effectively.

Figure 2: What holds women back from mentoring

A Formal Event

Not only is mentoring an uncommon practice for women, it is also uncharted territory for most organizations. A mere 56 percent of companies have formal mentoring programs, and of those that do, training, when present, is typically inefficient. Compounding the paucity problem, mentors aren’t being armed with the interpersonal skills (e.g., coaching, networking, influencing) they need to be effective. (Figure 3)

Figure 3: Mentors need help

The evidence for formalizing the mentoring process is clear. Organizations with the highest percentage of female senior executives formally promote and/or mandate the mentoring of women in lower-level jobs. Formal programs encourage greater participation. When and where available, half of all women found a formal mentor; elsewhere, only one in four benefited from a similar relationship. Noted one female insurance executive: “Before, we had a mentoring program that was employee-run, but not effective. Mentoring is now formal because our new CEO advocated for it.”

Lessons Learned

Women need to take a more active role in finding a mentor. Too many organizations are leaving mentoring to chance, so women need to initiate the process for themselves.

Conversely, mentors need to shout louder about their willingness to step into the role. Our advice for women targeting the top?  Do what men do well: Ask for help.

This article is adapted from Women as Mentors: Does She or Doesn’t She? A Global Study of Businesswoman and Mentoring. The report explores the unique mentoring-related challenges facing women in the workplace, and offers self-actuated solutions that will help level the gender playing field.

Stephanie Neal is a research associate for DDI’s Center for Applied Behavioral Research (CABER)

Jazmine Boatman, Ph.D., is a DDI senior consultant.

Linda Miller is product manager of DDI’s executive solutions group.

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