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We Need More Than Mentors

August 25, 2010

September 2010

The September issue of Harvard Business Review includes a fascinating article by Ibarra, Carter, and Silva examining the reasons women still do not achieve as much as men. “Why Men Still Get More Promotions Than Women” identifies differences in the types of “grooming” that the genders receive, and the gaps that keep women from breaking through all of those glass ceilings.

One of the quotes in the first paragraph really hit home with me:

Now I am being mentored to death.

My former chair identified me as someone with leadership potential over a decade ago. He connected me with a variety of development opportunities; ultimately, I felt “developed.” Now I lead one of the faculty leadership courses for my institution. We encourage participants to learn about themselves and to identify mentors both within and outside of our academic home. We are beginning to examine achievement several years later, and a question persists: Why do men seem to do so much better than women, even after the same opportunities?

According to  a 2008 Catalyst survey, 83% of women and 76% of men reported having at least one mentor during their career, yet only 65% of the women (compared with 72% of men) were promoted by the 2010 follow-up date. If mentoring is the key to success, why aren’t these women succeeding?

Turns out, the mentors differ. Men were more likely to be mentored by a senior executive (78% vs 69%), one with the organizational power to advocate their advisee as someone ready and worthy of taking the next step. The authors’ go on to differentiate between mentors and sponsors. Mentors provide emotional support, feedback , and other advice. They serve as role models, and assist their charges with institutional politics. Their focus is generally on personal and professional development with increased sense of competence and self-worth. Mentoring provides satisfaction; sponsorship is a necessity, though.

Sponsors must be senior leaders in good standing who can provide connections within the institution to facilitate promotion. A sponsor will assist their advisee in attaining opportunities and assignments, as well as protecting them from negative situations. Most important, a sponsor will fight for promotion of their people.

The senior management with the power and connections to make good sponsors are, unfortunately, overwhelmingly male. Such high-achievers often lack the sensibilities of a mentor, and throwing in the potential pitfalls in relationships (or perceptions thereof) between senior males and junior women, well, you can see why this relationship can be difficult.

So how can women get sponsors? Institutions interested in promoting high-potential women must establish sponsorship for them. The involved parties must be clear on the relationship; promotion is the goal! Such efforts cannot circumvent the woman’s current boss and job responsibilities, nor should mentorship be completely ignored. The leaders may also need to consider their own views on gender issues; women still have trouble navigating “the fine line between being ‘not aggressive enough’ or ‘lacking in presence’ and being ‘too aggressive’ or ‘too controlling’.”

What happens if a high-potential woman does not get appropriate sponsorship within her institution? In this study, at least, she leaves:

At Deutsche Bank, for example, internal research revealed that female managing directors who left the firm to work for competitors were not doing so to improve their work/life balance. Rather, they’d been offered bigger jobs externally, ones they weren’t considered for internally.

One of the development opportunities provided for me, the Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine program for women, included a bunch of structured interviews. Participants had to meet the dean and all sorts of C-suite officials for their institution. At the time, I found this activity useful because once I have met a person I feel pretty comfortable contacting them again. In light of this article, the activity provided another benefit- it put me on the radar of the people at my place of employment as someone with the potential to move up in the organization. I did not achieve true “sponsorship,” but if I were to do this again, that would be on the list.

To put this information most succinctly: mentoring gets you to the glass ceiling; sponsorship breaks it.


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