Office Politics

04.26.1312:00 PM ET

Can Women Succeed Without a Mentor?

Turns out, they may have to. Peggy Drexler looks at why female workers are failing to pay it forward.

Soon after graduating college, Fiona found herself working in the newsroom of her local TV station. She was in over her head—everything from when to talk in meetings to what to wear to work—but had no idea where to turn. Until Marybeth came to her rescue.

Marybeth was one of the senior producers, a kind, funny, ambitious woman who’d navigated the station’s mostly male newsroom to land one of the most coveted spots in the business. She took an interest in Fiona almost immediately. “At first, I wondered why—like, what was in it for her?” Fiona said, describing a relationship in which Marybeth taught her how to act professionally and be taken seriously but still have fun and enjoy the work. “But soon, I realized that she was getting just as much from the relationship as I was. The idea of ‘giving back’ was important to her, and through me she also got a glimpse into ‘what the kids were thinking.’”

Studies show that historically women have reported a more difficult time finding mentors than men do, which has led to a number of mentoring networks aimed specifically at connecting women with female mentors. In a 2010 World Economic Forum report on corporate practices for gender diversity in 20 countries, 59 percent of the companies surveyed said they offer internally led mentoring and networking programs, and 28 percent said they have women-specific programs. But with women squarely positioned as the driving force behind U.S. labor force growth—projected to account for 51 percent of the increase in total growth through 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Labor—what will happen when there aren’t enough mentors to go around? A 2011 report by McKinsey Research pointed out that women are claiming 53 percent of entry-level management jobs, but that after that, the numbers drop: to 37 percent for mid-managers, and even lower, to 26 percent, for vice presidents and up.

Women are already feeling the impact. According to a 2011 survey of more than 1,000 working women conducted by networking site LinkedIn, 1 out of 5 women say they’ve never had a mentor at work. The comparatively low numbers of female managers to females in entry levels offers one explanation. Another: those women who remain in the workforce often feel too strapped for time. A 2000 article from the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology reported that those women who were both leaders and had family responsibilities were the ones that younger psychologists most wanted to emulate—but they were also those who had the least time to mentor. Yet another reason may be that women are reluctant to ask for mentors, even when they want them. Women’s networking organization Levo League conducted a survey of users and found that a whopping 95 percent had never sought out a mentor at work.

Lauren, a successful magazine editor, had been lucky enough to have two mentors during her early career. Which is why she always agreed to informational interviews with college students and, when she was younger, always found an intern to take under her wing. But as she got older, and her job and family responsibilities grew more complicated and time consuming, Lauren found that she had a hard time placing mentoring others near the top of her priority list. “I wanted to offer support and guidance, especially as I’d benefitted from it myself,” she said. “But it was hard enough getting all my own work done and still having enough time to spend with my family, too.”

But there was a darker truth as well. In her business, Lauren told me, new, eager talent very often trumped experience. She was, in this way, afraid to give those below her too much good advice, though she hated admitting that fact. “I’d like to say I’m secure enough in my talent and abilities to be giving without reservation,” Lauren said. “But should I be giving away all the secrets to my success—really?”

This is an important point in the discussion of women mentoring women. Successful females like Lauren are milder embodiments of Queen Bees—those career women who not only have zero interest in fostering the careers of other women who follow, but may actively attempt to cut them off at the pass. Queen Bees exist largely as a result of a still-patriarchal work culture in which comparatively few women rise to the top. And though not mentoring is quite different from actively undermining, both may operate from the same position of fear. And neither benefits the cause of workplace equality.

Still, some argue that, for women, the simple act of mentoring may not even make a difference. A 2010 study by Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that promotes inclusive workplaces for women, found that mentors benefited men more than women even when women are mentored earlier and more often in their careers. This is in part because men secure mentors in more senior positions. But it’s also because male mentors tend to sponsor rather than just mentor—similar to the difference between coaching and selling. In fact, a 2010 Harvard Business Review report argued that women may actually be over-mentored, but under-sponsored. And that sponsoring—advocating to get somebody a job or promotion, mentioning their name in an appointments meeting, actively helping that person advance—is what makes the real difference in women helping women get ahead. Mentoring is one thing, but actual follow-through is quite another; the difference between talk and action. And something that, as the rise in Queen Bees and Queen Bee-tinged behavior suggests, may be but a dream for women in the workplace.

But not an impossible one. Fiona remembered her first big break coming at the hands of Marybeth, who not only suggested her for an assistant producer position but lobbied the station director for months. “She taught me how to present a case and follow through on my convictions,” said Fiona. “But more, her faith in me and my abilities gave me faith in myself and in others. By the end, I was incredibly loyal to her.” Years later, when Fiona landed a big job as an executive producer at a competing station, she asked Marybeth to join her team. “At last, I was in a position to help her, but I didn’t do it as payback,” said Fiona. “I did it because I knew she had always been on my side. If anyone would work hard for me, and ultimately make me look good, it was Marybeth.”