mentorship for women and the future of leadership.

  • workforce insights
  • December 18, 2019

Mentorship is critical to women's professional advancement, yet there are troubling signs that they aren't getting enough of it today. Consider the following recent findings:

  • While 67 percent of women rate mentorship as "highly important" to their career growth, the majority of them (63%) have never been formally mentored.

  • Even worse, an estimated 38 percent of companies today admit that they don't have any strategies in place for developing women leaders.

In the context of mentorship, there's a clear gap between what women want from their employers and the support and resources those employers offer.

To better understand that gap and help correct it, let's examine three reasons mentorship is so critical to women's success in the workplace, then break down a few simple best practices for putting formal mentorship programs in place at your company today. 

promotion and advancement

First things first: How direct is the connection between access to mentorship opportunities and women's advancement up the org chart?

Very direct, as the research bears out. For example, one study found that, even as mentorship rates tend to decline as employee age increases, the women who have enjoyed the highest level of support at most organizations are those already in the C-suite.

The takeaway? If we want more women to join the ranks of executive leadership, we need to offer them that same level of support.

advocacy 

Of the many reasons why mentorship is essential to women's advancement at work, few are as important as the concept of advocacy. In the broadest terms, advocacy is the extent to which employees feel they are, or are not, supported in the workplace. And unfortunately, women too often fall into the latter camp. 

For example, women in the workplace are typically required to provide more evidence of their competence than men and they tend to have their judgment called into question more frequently. They're also generally less likely to assert themselves in a number of ways, such as initiating a salary negotiation — something only seven percent of women do, compared to 57 percent of men.

Mentorship, as a form of advocacy, can help correct that. But when mentoring opportunities aren't made available to women, they're less likely to receive advocacy — and studies show that they're less likely to secure promotions as a result.

social capital 

Another reason that mentorship is so important for women has to do with social capital.

And what does "social capital" mean, exactly? Broadly speaking, it can be thought of as the overall value of an individual's social relationships with others. Specifically, some studies define it as an aggregate of multiple factors — like social support and a sense of community — that structure the experiences of employees, positively or negatively, in the workplace each day.

However the term is defined, research reveals that women and men access and acquire it in different ways at work. Critically, studies have found that building social capital in the workplace is typically more difficult for women than it is for men — and providing women with access to mentors can help correct that.  

best practices for implementing formal mentorship programs 

It's clear that increasing access to mentorship opportunities for women should be prioritized today, particularly in light of recent findings about women in leadership. For example, in every country where benchmarking studies have been conducted about women's representation in senior leadership roles, the percentage of women attaining senior- and director-level positions appears to be slowing or stagnating.

Obviously that's a worrying trend that needs to be reversed immediately — and by creating formal mentorship programs, companies can help spearhead the effort.

Already, most larger organizations appear to be on board: More than 70 percent of Fortune 500 companies report having some kind of formal mentorship program in place. At the same time, the fact that only about a quarter of smaller companies say the same suggests there's still a lot of work to be done. 

If you're among the latter, here are a few best practices to keep in mind as you go about implementing change. 

  • Prioritize personal connections in the mentee-mentor relationship. Research reveals that when mentees haven't first built a basic relationship with their mentors, the benefits of mentorship get nullified — with no discernible difference between outcomes for mentees and those who do not get mentored. 

  • Arm mentors and mentees with a roadmap to guide action. Lack of clarity around expectations can quickly derail the mentor-mentee relationship. (Case in point: Many organizations overlook the fact it is the mentee who is primarily responsible for driving the relationship.) Avoid the confusion by having both parties align on a shared vision. 

  • Character matters more than specific competencies. Mentorship is about leadership development, which means character development should be the central focus — not the acquisition of new job skills. 

  • Check your pessimism at the door. Optimism is a key part of the mentor's role. Your job is to be a sounding board, to provide encouragement and to help unleash your mentee's creativity and energy — not to take away from it.

As you go about formalizing the mentorship program at your organization, these three best practices should help position you for long-term success. 

key takeaways

Ultimately, if we're dedicated to developing the next generation of women leaders, almost nothing will be as important as mentorship programs to achieving that goal, as the examples in this article help illustrate. And for organizations considering formal mentorship programs, bear in mind that there's also a clear business case to be made: The benefits of formal mentorship programs far outweigh the costs — to the tune of as much as $19 returned on every $1 invested, in some cases.

Plus, beyond being good for women in general, mentorship can significantly move the needle on diversity as well. For example, formal mentoring programs have been found to increase the number of women of color in the workplace across the board: 18 percent for black women, 23.7 percent for Latina women and 24 percent for Asian American women, according to one study.

Ready to formalize the mentorship program at your company right now? Keep the best practices in this article top of mind. If you’re looking for more formal support, there are organizations like Twomentor that can help you out. To learn about other trends that may impact your business, visit our Future Workplace Trends Learning Center.