Nathalie (all names in this article are disguised), a senior marketing manager at a multinational consumer goods company and a contender for chairman in her country, was advised by her boss to raise her profile locally. An excellent intracompany network wouldn’t be enough to land her the new role, he told her; she must also become active in events and associations in her region. Recently matched with a high-level mentor through a companywide program, she had barely completed the lengthy prework assigned for that when she received an invitation to an exclusive executive-training program for high potentials — for which she was asked to fill out more self-assessments and career-planning documents. “I’d been here for 12 years, and nothing happened,” observes Nathalie. “Now I am being mentored to death.”
Amy, a midlevel sales manager for the same firm, struggles with a similar problem: “My mentor’s idea of a development plan is how many external and internal meetings I can get exposure to, what presentations I can go to and deliver, and what meetings I can travel to,” she says. “I just hate these things that add work. I hate to say it, but I am so busy. I have three kids. On top of that, what my current boss really wants me to do is to focus on ‘breakthrough thinking,’ and I agree. I am going to be in a wheelchair by the time I get to be vice-president, because they are going to drill me into the ground with all these extra-credit projects.”
With turnover sky-high in the company’s fast-growing Chinese market, Julie, a much-valued finance manager with growth potential, has likewise undergone intensive mentoring — and she worries that she may be getting caught betwixt and between. When she was nominated for a high-potential program, her boss complained that the corporate team was interfering with the mentoring operation he was already running in the region. Julie also took part in a less formal scheme pairing junior and senior finance leaders. “I’d prefer to be involved in the corporate program because it is more high-profile,” says Julie, “but it all adds up to a lot of mentoring.”
Nathalie, Amy, and Julie are not atypical. As companies continue to see their pipelines leak at mid-to-senior levels even though they’ve invested considerable time and resources in mentors and developmental opportunities, they are actively searching for ways to retain their best female talent. In a 2010 World Economic Forum report on corporate practices for gender diversity in 20 countries, 59% of the companies surveyed say they offer internally led mentoring and networking programs, and 28% say they have women-specific programs. But does all this effort translate into actual promotions and appointments for both sexes?
The numbers suggest not. A 2008 Catalyst survey of more than 4,000 full-time-employed men and women — high potentials who graduated from top MBA programs worldwide from 1996 to 2007 — shows that the women are paid $4,600 less in their first post-MBA jobs, occupy lower-level management positions, and have significantly less career satisfaction than their male counterparts with the same education. That’s also the case when we take into account factors such as their industry, prior work experience, aspirations, and whether they have children. (For more findings, see Nancy M. Carter and Christine Silva, ‘Women in Management: Delusions of Progress’, HBR March 2010.) Yet among that same group, more women than men report having mentors. If the women are being mentored so thoroughly, why aren’t they moving into higher management positions?
To better understand what is going on, we conducted in-depth interviews with 40 high-potential men and women (including Nathalie, Amy, and Julie) who were selected by their large multinational company to participate in its high-level mentoring program. We asked about the hurdles they’ve faced as they’ve moved into more-senior roles, as well as what kinds of help and support they’ve received for their transitions. We also analyzed the 2008 survey to uncover any differences in how men and women are mentored and in the effects of their mentoring on advancement. Last, we compared those data with the results of a 2010 survey of the same population, in which we asked participants to report on promotions and lateral moves since 2008.
All mentoring is not created equal, we discovered. There is a special kind of relationship — called sponsorship — in which the mentor goes beyond giving feedback and advice and uses his or her influence with senior executives to advocate for the mentee. Our interviews and surveys alike suggest that high-potential women are overmentored and undersponsored relative to their male peers—and that they are not advancing in their organizations. Furthermore, without sponsorship, women not only are less likely than men to be appointed to top roles but may also be more reluctant to go for them.