Is Female Mentorship Important? The Experts Weigh In.
July 5, 2023
75% of executives credit mentors with much of their success, and 90% of employees with career mentors report that they are happy at work. Mentoring makes an impact.

2020 research showed that 71% of executives choose to mentor employees of the same gender, or race, and only one in four C-suite executives is a woman, so – very likely.

This article explores the benefits of mentorship - woman-to-woman and more generally, reasons to serve as a mentor, tips for mentoring well, and top ways to acquire or become a female mentor.

Why Female Mentorship is Important

Mentorship and sponsorship play important roles in career development and satisfaction. It even impacts the bottom line: according to a 2022 MentorcliQ study, companies with mentoring programs earned 18% higher profits than average.

“I believe mentorship is vitally important to someone’s career,” said Judy Spalthoff, Managing Director of UBS Financial Services. She continued, “And I don't necessarily think that gender is the determining factor to a meaningful mentee/mentor relationship. However, I think women face uniquely different challenges at work than men do, so it is helpful to have female mentors.

"All that said, it's important to note that I don't think of mentorship as a single solution. I think it's best to have a ‘personal board of directors,’ which means you have a diverse group of people you can lean on for advice, to pick you up when you’re down, give you the hard truths about your blind spots, prep you for difficult conversations, and so on," continued Judy.

Some professional challenges are uniquely female. For example, women leaders are twice as likely to be mistaken for more junior than men leaders. Research shows there is also an ongoing imbalance in home-related responsibilities :women continue to shoulder more of the at-home labor than men, even as they advance further in their careers.

“There will always be a magic in connecting with someone with whom you identify and who has achieved what you want to achieve," shared author and writing coach, Paulette Perhach. “I think this is especially powerful within power dynamics as an identity that has traditionally been shut out. Only someone who has gone through what you’ve been through can truly understand.”

Christina Fong, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs at Foster School of Business of University of Washington, expanded. “Female mentorship is important because it helps to create a sense of community, solidarity, and belonging for women in spaces when they are often marginalized.”

Nithya Das, a C-Suite leader in high-growth tech, shared that while most of her mentors and sponsors have been men, she sees immense value in woman-to-woman mentorship. "In my own career, my official mentors and sponsors have primarily been men. The women I’ve interacted with and worked for have been mostly aspirational figures. Conversely, I’ve found myself in a mentorship role to dozens of women throughout my career. This is probably due to the fact that as an operator and executive in tech, I am often one of few women in the c-suite."

Why Should Women Mentor Other Women

Nithya continues, “Mentoring women has become one of the single most rewarding aspects of my career. It’s an opportunity to teach, but also to learn, to pay it forward, and to create a multiplier effect of women mentoring more women. It’s an opportunity to help show other women what’s possible. I couldn’t imagine doing the work I do and not agreeing to mentor other women. The work would be so unfulfilling!”

This type of mentor-mentee relationship wherein both parties grow is what Harvard Business Review refers to as transformational mentorship. This type of mentorship also requires equal work from both the mentor and mentee. For more tips on “reverse mentoring,” or providing value as you fill the role traditionally viewed as “mentee,” read up on how mentoring is a two-way street from Harvard Business Review. Or, this article on intergenerational learning.

What are the keys to creating these mutually beneficial mentoring relationships? The common threads are curiosity, honesty, a willingness to share ideas and ask questions, and to explore and support even the wilder of ideas. Often the most transformational mentor relationships exist within peer groups rather than a traditional match of higher level and lower level employee.

“I think female mentors are so, so very valuable. They offer you a perspective on shared experiences and challenges like work-life balance, navigating career advancement, and bias. I also find that females can be more empathic and a warm, open sounding board versus male mentors who [often] take on a more ‘Mr. Fix-It’ role. I have both male and female mentors, but maybe because of my age, or work experience, and the fact that mentorship only really became a core part of talent development strategies in the 1990s and 2000s, I only seem to have older male mentors," explained Erika Dale Rasmussen, Head of Strategy at Article Group.

Peer Mentorship is Mentorship

“My female mentors are my peer mentors. I have learned so much from this dynamic,”Erika continued. “Peer mentors are great! I love and appreciate the peer input. It is even more relatable and actionable. More access, friendship, mutual learning, growing together. These women are part of a strong support system for me. I am so grateful.”

Ambika Singh, founder and CEO of Armoire, emphasizes the immense benefit of peer mentorship, encouraging, “Don’t just look up! Traditionally, mentorship has flowed from more tenured individuals to those with less experience, but generationally, values are shifting dramatically. The things that were important to our parents are not necessarily relevant to us today. Instead, I’d recommend cultivating mentoring relationships along more dynamic parameters, and not just with those who have more life experience. Peer mentors have been hugely beneficial in my personal and professional development, and our Gen Z employees have provided excellent coaching on the criticality of sustainability in the future of our company.”

Peer mentorship between women may provide even greater benefits as participants develop relationships that invite sharing of challenges, experiences, and strategies for overcoming shared frustrations faced by women in the workplace.

How to Mentor Other Women

The spectrum of mentor relationships is broad - some are formal, some organic, many exclusive to guidance-oriented conversations, and many that weave friendship and mentorship together.

Judy Spalthoff shared about the range of mentors she has collaborated with, and the ways in which she has mentored others, “I have had many mentors over the years and some may not even realize they held that title, but there is one amazing woman in my life who has had an especially profound impact on me. Back in 2011, I attended a firm-sponsored women's event and a member of senior leadership at my company, Anita Sands, was giving a talk. If my memory serves me correctly, she had a top ten list of advice for women navigating their careers. One of her points noted that 'women don't ask' and she referenced a book by the same name by Linda Babcock. Anita talked about how statiscally, women are terrible at negotiating for themselves and we don't ask for what we want and need. I emailed Anita immediately after the session was over and explained a predicament that I was in at work. She called me the next morning and gave me advice on how to handle it. I took swift action and ended up getting a monetary bonus I was originally told I wasn't eligible for. I was a changed person. Anita helped me find the courage I didn't realize I had. Why had I been so afraid to negotiate for myself?” Judy continued, “The icing on the cake is that over the past 12 years, Anita evolved from a mentor to a very good friend. She slides in and out of the mentor-friend roles sometimes, but I love her for it.”

Mentors urging mentees to ask for more is - as it turns out - not an uncommon story. Paulette shared, “In 2016, I was a creative writer who had a story on women and money go viral. This connected me with female personal finance leaders and entrepreneurs. At a particular retreat, they nearly ordered me to double my rates, and I did.”

Paulette emphasized the best way to become a mentor to other women. “Make it clear you’re willing to help. Sometimes women can be less likely to want to ask for your time, because we’re socialized that way. Let them know you’re willing to answer questions and introduce them to people. Ask where they’re going and how you can help them get there.”

Judy underscored Paulette’s point, “Women (and men) should be approachable and make attempts to offer support. Full stop. If you're intimidating and people are afraid to reach out, then you'll remain unhelpful to those around you who could use your advice and mentorship. No one is too important to help someone else.”

Christina shared how mentoring enhances her own sense of fulfillment and renews her perspective, “Mentorship gives me a sense of purpose and meaning to my work. It helps me to recognize how advocating for myself also helps to advocate for others, and keeps me up to date on the new (and old) challenges that women face at work.”

While nearly every professional we spoke with was most enthusiastic about what they described as “organic” mentor relationships, they also acknowledged the value of formalized mentor programs and connections. Particularly in these cases of more structured mentorships, it can be useful to structure your interactions. Consider this advice on Six Things Every Mentor Should Do from academic physicians, Vineet Chopra and Sanjay Saint. Their insights range from the very beginning – choose your mentees carefully – to sunsetting relationships and preparing for transitions.

Ambika advises infusing a sense of responsibility. “Creating accountability systems in my mentorship relationships has made them feel more effective. A quarterly mentorship check-in – or whatever the cadence – can sometimes feel arbitrary or transactional. To be more respectful of my mentors’ time, I’ve started taking more notes in our meetings and writing action items. What’s more, I start each session with a status update. [I’ll say something like,] ‘Based on what we talked about last time, I pursued A, B, and C things. Here’s what happened. I want my mentors to know that I respect their time. This rigor and meeting structure aims to put their insights into action.”

Paulette agreed this structure of “reporting back” can serve as encouragement to both mentor and mentee; it can also build trust in newer relationships. “Ask for advice, then do the work, then come back with proof and ask a little more advice. Once someone sees that you’re a worker and their advice isn’t going to go to waste, they’re more likely to mentor you.”

Mentors also have the opportunity to act as sponsors, yet this is more rare in female mentor relationships than male. While 59% of women sponsors believe in their protege’s leadership potential (as compared to 50% of male sponsors), only 24% advocate for their protege’s promotion, compared to 30% of men.

Christina Fong stressed the importance of approach and being clear on your mentee’s goals, regardless of how the relationship was initially established. “Strong mentors approach these relationships with vulnerability, authenticity, and humility. Listening and understanding our mentee’s goals is step one!”

Why Female Mentorship is More Important Than Ever

The data is clear: mentorship boosts the bottom line and increases career satisfaction, but is it the right time for you to pursue mentorship – as mentor, mentee, or both? Research confirms that both mentors and mentees do experience benefits, yet while 76% of professionals believe a mentor is important, more than 54% don’t engage in a mentoring relationship.

76% of working professionals believe that a mentor is important to growth, more than 54% do not have such a relationship

According to the experienced professionals we spoke with, it’s always the right time.

When asked about the importance of mentors now, Judy responded, “I think it's always been and will always be critically important to have mentors – also known as your personal board of directors.”

It’s difficult to deny the benefits of mentorship in any season. Christina explains how she feels mentor relationships build our skills. “I believe that mentorship is a key leadership skill that helps us to get better at giving and receiving feedback, listening, and building community.”

Bridge mentorships are a particular type of "mentorship that intentionally connect diverse individuals to help level the playing field and provide more equal opportunities.” These unique pairings have the potential to be especially powerful in advancing DEI initiatives and closing the gap for young professionals who grew up in economically unstable environments. These stable, guiding relationships can make an impact on differences that are harder to impact. For example, those who grew up in middle and upper class - and experienced economic stability throughout their upbringing - are, on average, encouraged by family members and other adults to take part in activities like above-and-beyond academic experiences and extracurriculars. They are likely asked questions like where they intend to apply to college, or what career paths they are interested in from an early age. Conversely, those in less stable economic environments are more likely to be asked, “What will you do for work after graduation?” without reference to continue education options. Bridge mentorship helps address some of the unique challenges this creates, and can serve as a weapon against bias and systemic oppression.

The concept isn’t new: it was introduced by Pierre Bourdieu in 1983. The key difference is between bridge mentoring and traditional mentoring is that many traditional programs place emphasis on bonding, whereas bridge mentoring aims to bridge social capital. It intentionally brings together people of different backgrounds and closes “the knowledge gap between socially marginalized communities and the majority group.”

Top Female Mentorship Programs

There are two primary paths to mentorship: formalized programs and organic relationships. If you are pursuing bridge mentorship, a formal program may be especially helpful in making introductions and structuring first interactions.

Tips for Cultivating Organic Mentor-Mentee Relationships

“Find someone you admire and get in their world,” advises Paulette. “Take a class with them and take a chance to ask them for answers or a moment of their time. One of my most important mentors was a creative writing teacher who then invited me to a writing retreat. I was a little embarrassed and scared she’d say no, but I asked if she wanted to ride together. We had a three-hour drive there to bond with, and we’ve had an amazing friendship ever since.”

Christina stresses the importance of goal-orientation in mentorship. “This starts with being willing to share our personal goals and ask for help.” She continues, “Many times, junior women want to ask for mentorship without a clear sense of what they need from their mentor. Taking the time to articulate to ourselves what types of support and resources we need is a great start. Once we know what we need, it’s easier to identify the appropriate mentor.”

Pursuing Mentorship Through Programs: A Doorway to Bridge Mentorship and More

Begin within your organization or former schools. Many alumni foundations offer mentoring program connections, as do individual colleges within universities, and universities as a whole.

Employee resource groups within your organization or place of employment are also great opportunities to connect with mentors, either through structured programs, or simply by introducing you to people in different segments, or departments.

Woman to Woman Mentoring serves women from age 18 to 60, and offers one-on-one mentoring, community-building workshops, and other opportunities to connect.

Women Who Create serves women of color in creative fields, and offers mentorship, curated events, and a grant program.

Mentoring Her is an online platform aimed at breaking down barriers for women and girls, providing one-on-one mentoring and community.

Million Women Mentors (MWM) is dedicated to helping women and girls exploring careers in STEM.

Explore more mentoring programs recommended by Columbia’s University Center for Career Education here.



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