Why Women Need Mentors and Sponsors – Especially Male Mentors and Sponsors

When Tara Kelly was 9 years old, she built her first software program. Kelly, who is now the CEO of SPLICE Software, says this feat wasn’t because she was the Mozart of the tech industry. “It was something my father and I could work on together,  it was fun, and it was a bonding experience between us.” As a result of her childhood, Kelly says she was an adult when she realized that women didn’t typically work in tech.

It helps to have this type of support at home, but women also need it in the classroom and in the workplace – especially when addressing the STEM gender gap. According to Callie Babbitt, associate professor of sustainability at Rochester Institute of Technology, we’ve put a lot of effort into sparking interest in STEM fields and encouraging girls to pursue these degrees and careers. However, Babbitt (who is also a Fulbright Scholar) says we don’t yet pay enough attention to long-term retention through culture change and leadership development. 

The Importance of Women Mentors and Sponsors

“Coaching and mentoring female students and women in the workforce is a key need, particularly with the relative number of female leaders – and potential mentors – shrinking as you advance up the ladder,” she explains. “In many cases, women face cultural and institutional barriers to advancement that are easier to identify when there is a critical mass of people willing to discuss the hard issues, and easier to surmount when there is an accessible network of supportive peer mentors and allies.” 

And this lack of support is something that Annette Rippert, senior managing director at Accenture Technology, experienced early and often, first when studying engineering and computer science at Northwestern University. “Although I held my own in the male-dominated environment, I struggled with the lack of female role models to aspire to,” she says. Later, as she advanced in her career at Accenture, Rippert says she was also trying to build a family and discovering how hard it was to balance personal and job responsibilities.  “I am now passionate about fostering the development of professional women within my sphere of influence at Accenture, helping mold leaders who shape the world through business and government.”

She launched Accenture’s Working Mothers’ Advisory group, which focuses on providing mentoring, support, and honest advice.

Mentoring can take on many forms, and can be one-on-one or in a group setting. However, women need both mentors and sponsors, and here’s why: “Powerful mentors can be helpful to women if they can find one in a high-level position who can look out for their career interests and become heavily invested in their success,” says Kathryn M. Bartol, a professor in management and organization, area chair, and co-director of the Center for Leadership, Innovation and Change at the Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, College Park. 

“Generally, though, women are likely to be more successful if they use networking to build a variety of sponsors throughout their organization,” explains Bartol, who is a past dean of the Fellows of the Academy of Management, as well as a past President of the Academy of Management.  

Silos are as common as bathrooms in many organizations, and Bartol believes this approach can help to build links across the silos. 

“By developing such networks, women are in a position to develop multiple sponsors, learn more about career opportunities that arise, and build positive reputations that will bring their knowledge, skills, and abilities to the attention of multiple constituencies,” she says. And there are additional advantages to this strategy: women can build important social skills, and they won’t have to rely so much on one person.  “Also, they’ll have the ability to bring network connections to bear on aiding with innovative projects or completing work in general,” Bartol says.  

What’s Missing Without Male Mentors and Sponsors 

However, there’s a tendency for both men and women to either seek out or assist those of the same gender, which puts women at a disadvantage. For example, Luzia Ogureck, associate director of experiential education at New York Institute of Technology, says she’s grateful that she’s always been lucky enough to work for and alongside people who saw her potential and were willing to lean in on her behalf.  “Over the past ten years, wonderful mentors have guided me in navigating my career path, while sponsors helped me to score that dream internship, get that job interview, and receive that promotion.” 

But she admits that all of that help came from people who shared one significant characteristic with each other and with Ogureck: they were white women. “My personal experience is in line with multiple studies focusing on cross-gender relationships at work.” She points to data collected by LeanIn.org over the past two years, which shows that 60% of managers who are men are uncomfortable participating in a common work activity with a woman, such as mentoring, working alone, or socializing together. “Similarly, research by the Center for Talent Innovation found that nearly two-thirds of men in senior positions pulled back from one-on-one contact with junior female employees.”

She admits that part of this reluctance is based on fear, from both men and women, that the relationship could be mistakenly perceived as sexual in nature – especially if the mentee is much younger. “The other, arguably more crucial part of it is bias: even though we may have the best of intentions championing a diverse workplace, human instinct tends to make us gravitate towards those who are like us.”  

And in the quest to diversify commonly male-dominated fields, such as STEM, it’s even more problematic.  “For example, in 2017, less than 18% of all computer-science graduates were female,” Ogureck says. “Following the logic of any cumulative disadvantage, this trend then spills over into the professional world – only 29% of the science and engineering workforce are women.”

In the Me Too era, some people may think that it’s best if men don’t mentor or sponsor women. However, it’s women who are hurt by this approach. “While America may regard itself as a world leader in gender equality based on growing parity for entrance into many professions, success in those spaces is usually reserved for white males,” says Leslie P. Culver, Esq., identity and diversity expert and professor at California Western School of Law. “In this sometimes hopeful, but often bleak landscape, mentorship is more than just a trending fad; it is a matter of survival.”

And in addition to women mentors, Culver says they also need men mentors who are in positions of power. “First, in professions and organizations with predominately male leadership, women may be without resources and voices in strategic meetings to advocate for themselves.”

She says it’s often in the meeting before the meeting where promotion, salary, and other advancement decisions are being made.  “Research well supports that women are less likely than men to be risk-takers, to actively self-promote, or to explore or accept career advancing opportunities if doing so could negatively impact their relationships with others.”

According to a report by the Center for American Progress, women are only 20% of executives, senior officers and management in high-tech U.S. companies; 22.7% of law school partners; 16% of permanent medical school deans; 32% of full professors, 30% of college presidents; and 12.5% of CFOs in Fortune 500 companies. 

So limiting mentorship and sponsorship to other women creates an incredibly small pool and excludes the vast majority of people (men) who understand how the organization works and can provide insider knowledge to help shape a woman’s career trajectory. 

Also, new research from PayScale finds that “employees who have a white male advocate often end up with higher pay.”  The only hiccup is that people tend to create mentorship or sponsorship relationships with people who are like them in more salient terms, such as gender or race. Therefore, the mentees who benefit the most from this boost are the white male sponsees in the equation. This would suggest that creating more cross-gender mentor and sponsor connections could improve the situation as well. 

“As we wait for America’s reality to catch up with its vision of equality, mentors and sponsors (especially when they’re men) play a vital role in filling the gap of power imbalance,” Culver concludes. 

Terri Williams

Terri Williams

Straight to your inbox.

The best content on the future faces of tech and startups.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.



Join the Angel Sessions

Develop strategic relationships, build skills, and increase your deal flow through our global angel group and investing course.