What Holds Us Back: Where Have All the Mentors Gone?

Women are the driving force behind U.S. labor-force growth — expected to account for 51 percent of the increase in total growth through 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Where will they land in management?

The results of a 2011 McKinsey research report indicated that women are filling 53 percent of entry-level management jobs, but only 37 percent are mid-managers and only 26 percent are vice presidents or high-level executives.

Mentorship has been recognized as giving workers a boost up the corporate ladder. But several studies reveal that women have fewer mentorship opportunities than men, for a variety of reasons. Men tend to seek and offer to mentor more readily than women, who more typically need to be found and encouraged, according to a 2009 study by M. Laff.

Many women lack mentors in the workplace. In a 2011 survey of 1,000 working women conducted by LinkedIn, one out of five said they’ve never had a mentor at work. Results from more recent study of 318 mid- or senior-level women executives from 19 different countries and 30 different industries — conducted by global human resources consulting firm Development Dimensions International (DDI) — revealed that 63 percent have never had a formal mentor.

It’s not that women don’t value mentorship. In the DDI study, 67 percent said mentorship is highly important in helping to advance and grow their careers. And it isn’t because they aren’t willing to mentor; more than 50 percent said that they are not being asked. Seventy-one percent of women said they always accept invitations to be formal mentors at work, and the No.1 reason they want to mentor is because they want to be supportive of other women.

If asked, women who decline say the time commitment required causes them to turn down mentoring, several studies say. The DDI study found that it’s also a lack of confidence as a subject-matter expert — 54 percent decline on that basis alone. But according to the study, “a recent analysis by Harvard Business Review shows that once people reach the C-suite, technical expertise matters less than their core leadership skills. In most mentoring relationships, it is not subject matter and technical expertise with which mentees struggle. It’s the core leadership skills like influencing, working through problems, negotiation, and interpersonal skills with which less-experienced professionals most often need help.”

Still, even some great mentoring experiences may not be enough for women to break the glass ceiling. Sponsoring — advocating to get someone a job or promotion — is what really makes the difference in helping professionals advance. And even when women get mentored, coached, and are given developmental advice, according to another Harvard Business Review blog article, they are “not getting fought for and protected, and really put out there.”

‘We Need to Pay It Forward’

“Today’s workforce consists of three generations of women, which creates a ‘voice of experience and wisdom’ of what it takes to develop women leaders. In other words, we have become smarter and savvier about how to work effectively in the world of business. So, it was surprising to find that so few women have taken advantage of or pursued mentoring — either from being a mentor to others or receiving mentoring — especially since the data confirms that women are willing to help other women in the workplace.

“The biggest opportunity lies within each current and future female senior leader. We need to intentionally start mentoring and pay it forward,” says Linda Miller, product manager, executive solutions group, Development Dimensions International.

Why Are Women Worse Negotiators for Themselves Than Others?

As a graduate student studying management, Emily Amanatullah, now an assistant professor of management at the University of Texas, said that all the women she spoke to admitted that they hated advocating for themselves at work. But they had no trouble speaking up for colleagues, Amanatullah recently told National Public Radio (NPR).

So Amanatullah conducted an experiment, in which she had men and women negotiate a starting salary for themselves. Then she had them negotiate on behalf of someone else. When negotiating for themselves, women asked for an average of $7,000 less than the men, but when negotiating on behalf of a friend, they asked for the same salary as the men.

In a similar study among people who were participating in an executive training program, the gap widened. Women negotiated $141,643 for their own salaries — but when negotiating for others, the salary figure climbed
to $167,250.

Why? Two reasons come to mind, Joan C. Williams and Rachel Dempsey write in What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know. “One is that women themselves are probably aware, at some level, of the penalty imposed on women for self-promotion — so when negotiating for themselves, they hold back. Even if they don’t hold back, the pushback against self-promoting women probably makes women negotiators less effective when negotiating for themselves than for others.”

Maggie Neale of Stanford Business School told NPR that women can use their ability to fight for others for their own needs. When you’re negotiating a raise, she advised, think of the other people your salary supports to make it seem (at least in your own mind) that it’s not all about you. Neale also said to approach salary negotiation not from the perspective of “getting ready to do battle,” but as solving a problem.

Gender-equity experts recently interviewed in The New York Times offered strategies for women approaching negotiations at work. Among them:

› Prepare. Keep a record of positive feedback you receive as well as quantifiable contributions you’ve made.

› Gather supporting numbers.
It’s not easy to find out what others are earning, but the Times article suggests seeking out a recruiter to find out what you are worth on the open market — even if you have no intention of leaving your current organization.

› Frame your request from the employer’s point of view. Pay attention to the things your employer values.

› Negotiate in person.
Email can backfire.

› Don’t use another offer as leverage.
This tactic, when taken by a woman, can be perceived as a threat. Linda C. Babcock, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and founder of its gender-equity program, told the Times that it’s best to approach the situation like a dialogue: “Hey, there is something I really want to talk about. I want to stay. Is there a way to make this happen for me?”

› Practice. Role-playing the negotiation situation with a friend or partner should help boost your confidence.

Additional source: Hannah Riley Bowles, Linda Babcock, and Kathleen L. McGinn, “Constraints and Triggers: Situational Mechanics of Gender in Negotiation,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, no. 6, (2005): 951–965

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.