Can Mentorship Reduce Gender Inequity?

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Friday, March 5, 2021
Photo by iStock/fizkes
A report explores why more women aren’t advancing to the C-suite, and a forthcoming study offers an unconventional solution: Ask more women to mentor men.

Each year, it seems that the news regarding women’s representation in the workplace tells the same story—even with so much attention paid to attracting more women to business, companies have yet to make appreciable progress. But while the problem seems intractable, experts who track trends in workplace gender equity view it as one that can be solved. The findings of a recent report and forthcoming study both offer potential paths forward.

The report provides a snapshot of the state of women’s business representation in 2020. Its authors conclude that the numbers remain unacceptably low and outline an action plan for companies to accelerate progress. For its part, the forthcoming research paper recommends an unconventional solution that could mitigate gender disparities at senior leadership positions. Instead of asking women to mentor other women, the study’s authors suggest, companies might make more progress if they asked women to mentor men.

Need for Allies, Paths to Leadership

While the global pandemic made 2020 a difficult year in most respects, the year turned out to have a bright side. The number of women filling CEO positions at S&P 500 companies rose 2 percent since 2019, to 7.8 percent, according to the “Women CEOs in America Report.”

The report was released jointly by c200, an organization of successful women business leaders; Catalyst, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing women’s representation in senior leadership positions; and the Women Business Collaborative (WBC), an alliance of women’s business organizations. It not only provides a snapshot of the state of women’s representation in business leadership during 2020, but also includes profiles of every woman CEO of Fortune 500, S&P 500, and Russell 3000 companies.

Although women filled a record number of CEO positions, this increase does not come close to reflecting women’s participation at lower levels of business. According to data the report cites from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women held “51.5 percent of all management, professional, and related occupations in 2018,” but for some reason that percentage drops precipitously at higher-level positions. The problem, according to the report, is that many women are not provided paths to senior leadership.

Female CEOs are 55 percent more likely than their male counterparts to have women running business units. Executive teams where women make up 30 percent of the members perform better than those with fewer or no women.

“The percentage of women is generally strong at mid-level but requires building opportunities for women to act as CFO or COO, or in other roles with significant P&L responsibility,” the report’s authors emphasize. “Improving diversity at the highest levels will require men and women advocates, boards with a focus to improve gender diversity for the CEO slots, and search firms with a laser focus on calling for gender diversity at leadership levels.”

The report’s authors cite a Credit Suisse study that finds that female CEOs are 55 percent more likely than their male counterparts to have women running business units, and that executive teams where women make up 30 percent of the members perform better than those with fewer or no women.

Catalyst, WBC, and c200 call on industry to accelerate progress toward gender equity by meeting several targets by 2025. In four years, the partner organizations would like women to make up at least 15 percent of CEOs in the Fortune 500 and S&P 500 and 25 percent of the candidates interviewed for C-suite positions. The partners also would like women of color to make up at least 10 percent of female CEOs and 25 percent of women interviewed for CEO positions.

Could Mentorship Be the Answer?

What actions can corporations take to achieve these targets? Three scholars propose an unconventional solution that they believe could succeed where other strategies have failed. While companies and universities have long called on women leaders to mentor other women, the co-authors advocate for a different approach: Instead of asking women executives to mentor women, would it be more effective to ask them to mentor men?

The research team behind this recommendation includes Cindy Schipani, the Merwin H. Waterman Collegiate Professor of Business Administration and a professor of business law at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business in Ann Arbor; Terry Morehead Dworkin, the Wentworth Professor of Business Law, emerita, at Indiana University in Bloomington and scholar in residence at the Seattle University School of Law; and Devin Abney, an associate at the law firm Dorsey & Whitney.

In their forthcoming paper in the University of Pennsylvania Journal of Business Law, Schipani, Dworkin, and Abney point out that while the #MeToo movement has raised awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace, it has had a dampening effect on workplace equality. “Studies indicate that a deep paranoia of women by men is permeating the corporate workplace,” the co-authors write. As a result, “women, who were already at a significant disadvantage in corporate America, face increased exclusion by men in and outside the workplace.”

Schipani explains in a recent interview why she and her co-authors believe that encouraging more women to mentor men could make a real difference. “Women who have succeeded in executive leadership positions could model, to more junior men on the corporate ladder, leadership behaviors that are appropriate across both genders,” she says. “When men and women work together, they learn more about each other, more about different working styles, even more about what kinds of things women go through." The more companies create scenarios where women mentor men, she says, the more they might be able to create a virtuous cycle that offers women more paths to leadership positions.

“By allowing junior men to work with women, the junior men would be conditioned to value women based on their capability and not their adherence or deviation from gendered attributes. This shared success is critical.”

Companies might reap many benefits from this approach, the co-authors argue. First, such mentoring relationships could “help normalize cooperative interactions between the genders”—an important step in breaking through gender bias. Men who are mentored by women also could “gain an appreciation for the very attributes for which women have been stereotyped,” from displaying greater empathy to working more collaboratively.

“Furthermore, the mentoring relationship would place senior women in a position to educate junior men regarding appropriate conduct,” they add. “Junior men could learn boundaries and appropriate conduct by modeling the behavior of senior women. This may be one of the most important benefits of the mentoring relationships.”

The three researchers cite one program that’s piloting the approach. Menttium, a corporate mentoring company, has created a program called “Women Mentoring Men: Standing Together for Change.” So far, the program has matched five women executives with five male executives from different firms—all the executives meet with their mentors one-and-one and together as a group once a month.

The researchers say that they would like to see more programs like the one at Menttium. Additionally, they see a need for more research to identify how best to deploy such programs to make the biggest positive impact.

Accountability and Action

Both the report and the forthcoming paper come to similar conclusions: Although companies have grown increasingly aware that they have an equity problem, the numbers of women serving on corporate boards and in upper-level management positions have improved only incrementally. “We just aren’t seeing the needle moving very much,” Schipani says. “It takes more than awareness. It takes action.”

Because gender stereotypes are so prevalent in business, it’s “not enough by itself to provide evidence of the equal or superior work performance of women,” Schipani, Dworkin, and Abney write. “By allowing junior men to work with women and share in and appreciate their success, the junior men would be conditioned to value women based on their capability and not their adherence or deviation from gendered attributes. This shared success is critical, as it would cause men to process their interactions with women as a part of their own self-concept identity.”

The authors of the “Women CEOs in America Report” agree that mentorship will play a big part in addressing the lack of female representation at higher levels of leadership. However, they also believe that companies should embrace greater transparency in their succession planning and do more to track women’s progress through their pipelines.

Companies need to provide women “with visibility, stretch assignments and mentoring at critical points in their career,” the report’s authors stress. “If companies would hold their leaders just as accountable for creating more equity in representation and compensation between their male and female employees as they do for revenue and profitability, we wouldn’t need to do this research and focus on this issue.”

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