NEW YORK (MainStreet)—Society has been talking about the gender pay gap since the 1970s, and everyone loves to repeat that women earn 70% of what men do. The truth is more nuanced, and the gender gap varies by industry: Women in real estate and community associations earn 60.6% of their male counterparts' salary, while female respiratory therapists earn more than their male colleagues, at 106.4%. Yet, according to Pew, women earn more than men in just 7 out of 500 professions studied, and one of many social and professional obstacles may be a lack of good mentorship.

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"Anecdotal evidence shows that it's still much more difficult for women to ascend in their careers," said Rachel Sklar at an Internet Week New York panel on women and mentorship. Sklar is the founder of Change the Ratio and The.List, websites dedicated to empowering women in the workplace. "Men tend to get more powerful mentors more easily, and the gender pay gap persists," Sklar said.

The Internet Week panel was led by Wenda Millard, President/COO of MediaLink, and included luminaries Gail Tifford, Senior Media Director of Unilever North America, and Nada Stirratt, Chief Revenue Officer and EVP of Axciom.

How Is Female Mentorship Different?

According to Sklar, in addition to simply having more access to mentors, men often have access to better mentors. "Especially when starting your career, it's important [for women] to pay attention to the types of introductions you receive. Are they always about what you can do for free, or someone else you can help? Or is it, 'Let me recommend you for this speaking gig,' or 'you should get paid for what you do?'" Looking back on the beginning of her career as a corporate lawyer, Sklar doesn't think she received the greatest advice. Although she's not the timid type, she still made decisions that relinquished her own power rather than seizing it.

"I've never been in a situation where I felt someone got the job over me, because they were male," Tifford said, "but I am very aware of my gender, especially when I go on business trips and there are ten men and me. You can't help but be aware. I would love to have more women around me ... Is it that men are getting the jobs over the women? I'd say half the time or even more, it's women taking themselves out of the consideration set." That resonates with Sheryl Sandberg's central argument in Lean In, where she argues that women shouldn't mentally leave the workforce before they actually leave the workforce.

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"In the ad business in the late '80s, it was so clear," Stirrett said. "All the executives were men, and the assistants were female. Nowadays, I think of myself less from a gender standpoint. The playing field is more level, but there are still enormous issues around women studying science or math. Over time, I think the gender issue will get softer and softer."

Sklar notes that women and men may have different strengths and challenges, and it's important to refrain from stereotyping. All the same, she doesn't think going "gender-blind" is the answer: "You can only be gender-blind until a professional contact hits on you. That just doesn't happen to men. If this was a panel of men talking about mentors, they would just talk about mentors, not about the fact they were men. The simplest thing to do is to be aware, focus on good people who treat you well and respect you [and respect] not just what you are now but what you can become."

The Kinds of Mentoring Relationships That Work

Tifford remembers a great mentor she had throughout her career: "At Unilever, when I first started, I was single. She continued to mentor me throughout my entire career, life stages, through getting married, having little children, older children, and I attribute a lot of who I am today to her."

Given her experience with mentors who take on and undermine rather than promoting their mentees, Sklar emphasized that the mentorship relationship should be two-way: "Make friends because the #1 way to establish a relationship with someone is to also give back. Often, people look for mentors and [right away ask what the mentors can do for them]. Establish a relationship with someone and offer things as well, so it goes both ways."

Tifford said she was surprised when a survey at Unilever found that women were more interested in mentorships focused on helping them succeed professionally rather than on issues like work-life balance or family life. "I was surprised that they're very open to male mentors," she said. "They're just looking for someone not only to advise but to advocate for them in the workforce."

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Stirrett agreed: "If I want to think about balance in my personal life, I'll get a shrink. Otherwise, I want a boss or mentor who's smarter than I am and who can give me the best guidance for my career move. I've known my mentors for years and they've known me for my career. Gender is so secondary when thinking about someone guiding you."

In terms of structure, the panel saw value in both informal relationships and formal mentorship programs. Regardless of the gender of the mentor, Tifford said, "I do feel that it is responsibility of all organizations to provide formal mentorship programs, because research shows it does lead to women in leadership at companies."

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Stirrett suggested that formal learning and development programs may be most helpful to women starting in their careers and gaining their footing, whereas informal relationships become increasingly important over the course of their careers. "I have a group of women where, when one of us is thinking of career move or an issue to overcome, we grab a glass of wine to discuss it," she said. "I've heard people call that a 'personal board of directors.'"

How the Professional Landscape Is Changing

"I can only speak to my experiences at Unilever, but our company has really set itself up so it's not about coming in at 8 and leaving at 7, but coming in and getting your work done well," Tifford said. "I go home and feed my kids and put them to bed, and then get online. We have set up an agile workforce so you can do what you need to do when you need to do it. I think that'll keep women at Unilever."

Stirrett points to society's increased connectivity as both good and bad. The downside, she said, is that now we're always available and accessible. "Yet, while I believe there's a strong reason for people to be in the office for talent development and teamwork, people have much more flexibility to get the job done and fill in where they can," she said.

"I think it's interesting that the default assumption is that women are worried about how to balance it all," Sklar said. "We're all busy, and last I checked, children are the product of men as well. So the assumption that women only want to talk about balance or that they should only work with female mentors, that's a fallacy." In part, that stereotype is changing because our workplaces have changed. "It's never been easier to start a company or hang out a shingle as a freelancer," Sklar said. "These days companies have to work very hard to retain talent, and they're starting to figure that out. Quality of life is important."

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Advice for People Seeking a Mentor

"It's fun, exciting and energizing to mentor people who are hungry and ambitious and want to do things," said Sklar. "If you've done your homework and talk to someone you think could be a great mentor, and bring that to the table they'll be excited to talk to you."

"I'd tell women in their 20s and 30s to ... find and actively own that relationship," said Stirrett. "It's not about seeing each other at cocktail parties and lunch, but thinking about your career path and goal-setting."

Tifford repeated words of wisdom from Sheryl Sandberg that really resonated with her: "Excel and you will find a mentor, but not other way around. It's important to have a mentor, but that's not what will make you successful. Focus on doing your job and getting noticed, and then create that relationship."

--Written by Allison Kade for MainStreet