Good Mentors Benefit Women More Than Men – But All Workers Need Them

There is no shortage of ways to raise your profile in your industry and your company.

Popular social media sites like LinkedIn and Twitter can help, as can speaking and appearing at industry events and penning columns and blogs on key industry publishing platforms.

But there's a more old-fashioned, yet still highly productive, method of raising your career profile (especially in your workplace) - face-to-face mentoring. Latching on to a presumably older, more experienced career professional can help you get on, and stay on, the best path for you during your working years, especially as it turns out, if you're a woman.

A new study from the University of California Haas School of Business, entitled "Network Intervention: A Field Experiment to Assess the Effects of Formal Mentoring on Workplace Networks" tracked 139 "high potential" staffers at a U.S. software company based in China. In it, researchers found "women gained more social capital from affiliation with a high-status mentor than their male counterparts."

Sameer Srivastava, an assistant professor at the Haas School and lead researcher on the report, says that formal mentoring can expand professional networks in a variety of ways for women, by building social skills and providing access to the elite members of an organization. "Notably, simply being publicly affiliated with a high-status mentor appeared to benefit women more than it did the men in the program," the study states. "Qualitative interviews pointed to one main reason: women experienced a greater increase in visibility and legitimacy as a result of their mentor affiliations than did male participants. As a result, women became more attractive network partners for their colleagues."

Ask a professional women about the value of mentors, and you get a direct, appreciative reply.

"The fact that women find mentors more valuable doesn't surprise me whatsoever," says Elle Kaplan, the chief executive officer of LexION Capital Management, one of the only women owned and operated investment firms in the nation. "When I was working on Wall Street, I felt completely out of place in the "old boys' club" where women were a largely ignored rarity."

To this day, women only comprise 17.6% of the executive positions in finance, Kaplan adds. "It's hard enough to earn your wings in business, but in a male-dominated field it's akin to being the first person to step onto the moon," she says. "Women in these fields can benefit extremely from a mentor who will act like a professional Sherpa. After all, they often have no one else to look up to."

While male mentors may debate that last point, Kaplan practices what she preaches. She frequently takes time out to mentor other women in the field and shows them they have a place in the finance industry, too. "You should do the same - there are numerous groups and professional organizations out there for women in every field imaginable," she adds. "You'll learn invaluable advice from a group that's faced the same challenges. And even if you aren't an expert, these organizations would love a helping hand."

For women professionals, finding other women in leadership roles can get them on the path to their own leadership role. "I believe that workplace mentors benefit women extensively," says Deborah Sweeney, chief executive officer at MyCorporation, and online legal and business filing service for small companies, in Calabasas, Calif. "Women do not have as much access to mentorship with women in leadership roles because traditionally there are fewer women in leadership roles. Interestingly, it's all the more reason women need mentors. They need to see examples of successful women and how they do it."

For women looking for a better way to find and nurture a mentoring relationship, Sweeney advises locating someone you admire and whose career path you want to emulate. "Whether it is the role she is in, the way she balances work and life, or even just her approach to life - find someone who fits your ideal and reach out," Sweeney says. "Women are often very receptive to such mentorship. They are proud of who they are and how far they have come and are often in a place of wanting to give back and help other aspiring women."

Your goal should be to ask specific questions, to be prepared and to be quick, Sweeney adds. "Don't take too much time - take then to coffee, ask detailed questions, build a relationship," she says. "Who knows, if this woman is in a role of influence, she may be able to introduce you to people or roles that could help with your business growth. You should not go into the mentorship relationship with that in mind, but with the right intentions, you never know what can turn up."


Additionally, take a page out of a Hollywood blockbuster to find your ideal mentor.

"'Help me help you' is one of the most popular lines from the movie Jerry McGuire," says Anne-Marie Ditta, an executive career coach in New York City. "That's the best model to find and benefit from a mentoring relationship. Define what you need and want from the relationship and then identify who is an expert in that area. It would make sense for someone who is not a strong closer to find and ask for the help of the best closer in their organization."

Expectations need to be clearly defined, goals must be set and monitored, and a spirit of giving needs to be at the core in order for both parties to reap the benefit of the relationship, Ditta adds.

"Meeting with a mentor for as little as 30 minutes every week or every other week can help professionals learn how to close the gap between being average and great," she says. 

While nurturing mentor relationships is a great idea no matter what your gender, there's a ton of upside in doing so for women - who in many cases have higher to climb professionally and who can use all the solid guidance they can get from a mentor.

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