Glass ceiling is alive and well: Why mentoring for women is so important

Human Resources




“Some colleagues and I (all women) are exploring starting a mentoring program at our company. All of us have worked hard to climb the ladder here. Now that we are starting to look down the road toward retirement, we want to help the women that follow us so that they can have an easier and, hopefully, even more successful path. Do you have any suggestions for how we can sell this idea to the top leaders (all of whom are men!) so that this becomes something more than a ‘book club for the girls?’ We want to build a serious and significant program. Where do we start?”


Unfortunately, the employment state of affairs for many women is still cause for concern. Historically, women have reported having a more difficult time finding mentors than men. According to a 2010 World Economic Forum report, 59 percent of companies surveyed globally reported having mentoring programs; 28 percent had women-specific programs.

Women are forecasted to account for 51 percent of the increase in total growth in the U.S. workforce by 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. According to a 2013 report by McKinsey Research, women claim 53 percent of entry-level management jobs, but only 37 percent of mid-manager jobs, and only 26 percent of VP jobs and up. The “glass ceiling” is alive and well, as women still only make 75 percent of what men earn for comparable work. Women, when they do hold senior leadership roles, often are in “soft” assignments such as HR; it is tougher for them to land “C-suite” assignments.

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The reader specifically talks about a mentoring program for women. She is spot on in terms of identifying an issue for which most organizations’ performance is absolutely awful. Many, many women simply have never had the chance to work with a mentor. In 2011, LinkedIn found that 80 percent of women reported never having had a mentor at work. A 2000 study by the American Psychological Association found that younger female psychologists wanted most to emulate women who were both leaders and had family responsibilities…but these busy women were the ones with the least amount of time to serve as a mentor! Ninety-five percent of young women are afraid to ask for a mentor, according to the women’s networking organization Levo League.

There is also the brutal reality that men typically benefit more from mentoring than do women. This has to do with the fact that men often gain advantages because of the nature of the mentoring relationships they establish. A 2010 study by Catalyst found that mentors benefitted men more than women because men tend to secure mentors in more senior positions. In 2010, Harvard Business Review suggested that women are “over-mentored” and “under-sponsored.”

So, what are the implications of the studies I have referenced so far? Well, first of all, the glass ceiling still exists in all too many organizations (i.e., women can only go so far before they bump into barriers established by the “good old boys club”). Secondly, if they want to have the mentoring really give them a career boost, women should choose wisely when selecting a mentor (i.e., choose a person who is an “influencer” or “connector”). Third, and perhaps most importantly, for mentoring to be most effective, senior male leaders must actively support the program.

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From where I sit, this issue is a strategic concern, not just a feminist or human resources concern. Securing and retaining top talent, no matter the specific demographic group, is a key ingredient, perhaps the most critical ingredient, to promote ongoing organizational effectiveness.

What can the reader do to work with her colleagues to craft a mentoring program for women at her company?

  • First, using the data from this column and other sources, including specific data from her company, she needs to make the clear-cut business case that developing talent (all talent, including women!) is a strategic business imperative! Because women will increasingly populate the workforce (and eventually the leadership ranks), developing an organization-specific mechanism by which high potential women are identified and developed is an increasingly urgent concern.
  • Second, the reader can make the case that mentoring is a proven and powerful approach that builds relationship capital across the organization (i.e., people who get involved forge strongly positive relationships).
  • Third, she can appeal to the leadership legacy concerns of the top leaders as she sells her concept. Mentoring is a way for leaders to pay back the organization, consistent with a servant leadership approach and the concept of building a sustainable leadership legacy. Do the top leaders want to set up the organization for even greater success in the future? Or, do they want to ride into the sunset and let somebody else worry about the leadership void they left behind?

Daniel Schroeder, Ph.D., is president of Brookfield-based Organization Development Consultants Inc. (  He can be reached at (262) 827-1901 or

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