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The Promise of Mentoring

Mentoring has become a buzzword of sorts and a lot of ink (or typing) has been devoted to the topic. Often the first advice given to a woman starting her career in technology, “get a mentor” has become the de-facto touted solution for advancement. While mentoring has many definitions, viewing it as a relationship focused on learning  is a great place to start. There is good reason for the popularity of mentoring. Social science research has demonstrated that being mentored leads to:

Mentoring has become a buzzword of sorts and a lot of ink (or typing) has been devoted to the topic. Often the first advice given to a woman starting her career in technology, “get a mentor” has become the de-facto touted solution for advancement. While mentoring has many definitions, viewing it as a relationship focused on learning  is a great place to start.

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There is good reason for the popularity of mentoring. Social science research has demonstrated that being mentored leads to:

  • higher job satisfaction
  • higher promotion rates
  • higher future income
  • increased work success
  • higher retention rates

With such benefits, there is no reason for companies that wish to retain and advance top talent not to support mentoring. The reasons for employees to do it are similarly compelling (income, advancement, satisfaction). And yet, many people have yet to engage in mentoring or do not know where to start. Several factors, some individual and some organizational, can keep mentoring from delivering on its promise.

Individual barriers to mentoring

First, there is a problem of access. Employees who are in a minority in an organization, such as technical women or under-represented minorities, are more likely to be excluded from social networks, which makes their ability to find mentors more difficult. Women perceive more barriers in accessing a mentor, citing lack of access and the dearth of availability of female mentors.. Other researchers, also have documented how women tend to be excluded from influential social networks, further limiting their access to mentors.

Second, not everyone is ready to be mentored. Many enter mentoring relationships without having thought about what they want their career to progress to, what they want to get out of the relationship, and may not be in a place where they are self-aware enough to welcome the inevitable “feedback” that comes with a mentoring relationship.

Organizational barriers to mentoring

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In the our study of technical employees in high-tech companies released last October (www.anitaborg.org/research), 4 companies out of 7 surveyed had a company mentoring program, and almost all companies had a word implying employee learning as a core value (without learning, there is no innovation – so this value makes sense for high-tech companies). Yet, despite those stated values and the existence of mentoring programs, mentoring was consistently perceived by technical employees being an unrewarded behavior.

Consider that:

  • Only 19% of 1795 technical men and women surveyed say that mentoring is a very or extremely rewarded behavior in their company.
  • Compare this to the 38% of men and 46% of women who say that self-promotion is a very or extremely rewarded behavior.

These statistics tell us something about the culture of high-tech companies – competition trumps developing others. This culture creates a disconnect between the policy (formal mentoring programs) and the practice (people actually using these programs) at these companies.

In our survey, 53% of technical men and 70% of technical women viewed mentoring as very or extremely important. Yet, they gave their companies poor marks in terms of delivering on the promise of mentoring – only 24% of men and 26% of women feel like their companies are doing good or excellent in mentoring.

Is mentoring then doomed for failure in high-tech companies? No – there are great examples of successful programs. Next week, Telle Whitney will detail how companies can overcome these barriers and create a mentoring program that is embedded in an organization’s culture.

References:

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Fagenson, E.A. (1989). The Mentor Advantage: Perceived Career/Job Experiences of Protégés versus Non-Protégés. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 10 (4).

Noe, R.A. (1988). Women and Mentoring: A Review and Research Agenda. Academy of Management Review,13 (1), 65-78.

Ragins, B.R., & Cotton, J.L. (1991). Easier Said than Done: Gender Differences in Perceived Barriers to Gaining a Mentor. Academy of Management Journal, 34 (4): 939-951.

Ibarra, H., Paving an Alternative Route: Gender Differences in Managerial Networks. Social Psychology Quarterly, 1997. 60(1): p. 91-102.

Burt, R., The Gender of Social Capital. Rationality and Society, 1992.

Whitely, W., Dougherty, T.W., & Dreher, G.F. (1991). Relationship of Career Mentoring and Socioeconomic Origin to Managers’ and Professionals’ Early Career Progress. The Academy of Management Journal, 34 (2), 331-351.