We've all heard the saying: You can teach a horse to drink but if you want him to be well hydrated, you have to bring him to water. Actually, we've never heard that saying because the saying doesn't exist, but my paraphrase of the old saying does seem to summarize nicely the state of career mentoring for women today.
I am a strong advocate for mentors and I am an even stronger advocate for mentors for women, both internally in companies and as entrepreneurs. My second venture achieved early success thanks to the thoughtful guidance of my own mentor. However, looking back years later, I realize that my success was not based on his mentoring alone but that he also brought me to the water.
The benefits of mentoring are undeniable. Mentoring is accepted as an important and even necessary tool in helping individuals advance in their careers. Individual and personal guidance is now seen as an integral component of leadership programs, and mentoring programs which focus on women are considered even more important as women move up the corporate ladder. So why, with such a strong emphasis on mentorship, and with programs specifically designed for women, are women still under-represented in higher-ranking or leadership positions?
Dr. Brandy Aven, professor of Organizational Behavior at Carnegie Mellon, says that while more women report having mentors, their mentors tend to provide coaching but don't usually pull strings for the women they are guiding. "Men, on the other hand," she continues, "sponsor their mentees. Sponsorship is more valuable because the sponsor spends social capital to advance the man."
I've discovered that mentoring for women typically comes down to helping a woman to both understand herself as a leader and to understand her relationships to others. By contrast, in my experience, mentoring for men typically also includes introductions, career-strategy and endorsements. A well-hydrated horse.
I realize now that my mentor sponsored me and that support helped me grow the organization I was launching successfully. While he certainly helped me understand myself better as a leader, and was available to me to talk out new challenges, he also introduced me to people in high-level positions who would help move my new nonprofit forward. These were game-changing introductions.
Access, introductions, a defender in your corner willing to advocate on your behalf -- these are the traits that separate, as Dr. Aven wrote, a mentor from a sponsor. And more importantly, they appear to be some of the reasons why men climb the ladder faster or have more success in starting their own businesses.
I cannot explain why these traits appear more in male mentors than in women, but as someone who frequently mentors young women entrepreneurs, I'd like to suggest that women who take on the role of mentoring incorporate some of these behaviors into their coaching portfolio.
If our goal is to raise the ceiling for more women, then we need to create not only supportive networks, but functioning networks that use the power of personal relationships and influence to drive individuals forward. We, as women, need to take the extra steps necessary to stand behind those women we guide and represent them to the finish line. This alone may not even the professional playing field but it appears to be one identified reason why men experience greater professional success.