Why do we keep hearing that women are over mentored?
It is very common within groups that focus on gender parity to use the phrase “women are over mentored and under sponsored.” I hear it all the time to such an extent it has become one of these business truisms that people say that end up not meaning anything like “it is what it is”.
But only one part of that phrase is accurate. Women are under sponsored.
But not all women are over mentored.
Herminia Ibarra in an interview with HBR suggests:
Mentoring is a term that gets thrown around a lot. And it’s used to describe a whole range of relationships that help people develop in their career. But really over time and with common usage, what it’s come to connote, for just about everybody, is somebody who shows people the ropes, helps them get acclimated, and provides benevolent advice. Somebody who cares about them, with whom they can bat around strategies, get some counsel.
Role of a mentor
This definition is probably a little on the loose side. A workplace mentor actually does more than that. A mentor offers support in:
- Strategic career planning
- Giving situational advice
- Addressing skill set deficiencies
- Making network introductions
- Creating accountability
- Transferring knowledge
- Offering sector or professional insights
Type of mentoring
Research conducted by Catalyst into high-potential women with MBAs, indicates that women have many opportunities for a mentor, but no one to advocate for them. They do not have the same access to sponsors that their male peers do. The research also reflected that their mentoring process was different to their male counterparts. Ibarra says:
“Many women explain how mentoring relationships have helped them understand themselves, their preferred styles of operating, and ways they might need to change as they move up the leadership pipeline. By contrast, men tell stories about how their bosses and informal mentors have helped them plan their moves and take charge in new roles, in addition to endorsing their authority publicly.”
This suggests that the nature of the mentoring process for women needs to be adjusted. Men when they are mentoring women need special training, as very often they embed unconscious biases, endorse stereotypes and can be blissfully unaware of the sand traps that women face in the workplace.
Type of organisation
This research is conducted in Fortune 500 companies and big organisations. So the notion that women are over mentored can be correct to the extent that we accept that anyone can be over mentored. But 90% of European businesses are SMEs and most women have no professional sponsors, mentors or even role models at all.
At a recent JUMP Forum I asked a group of about 150 women in an audience how many had a workplace mentor. About 20% put their hands up. I then asked how many women had a mentor in any sphere. Another 50% raised their hands.
That still left 30% without mentors.
Read: How to find a mentor
Formal and informal mentors
Now a professional and workplace mentor can be very different to having an informal mentor. The nature of the relationship changes with the context. It is unlikely that there is any formal accountability or strategic goal setting in the process. I have a number of informal mentors myself and they give great advice and share wise words but it is not the same. A formally appointed mentor puts the relationship in a different place and has a greater chance of leading to sponsorship.
So as we see frequently in discussions relating to women there is significant generalisation and simplification. Not all women are over mentored. There are a significant number of women working in SMEs with neither sponsors or mentors. And women in large organisations are possibly not getting the same type of mentoring as their male colleagues. That’s something we need to change.
But in all organisations large and small it is clear that women are being under-sponsored. We need to change that too.