Why Do So Few Women Have Mentors?

A good mentor can steer you to professional success. But according to a survey by LinkedIn, nearly 1 out of 5 women say they've never had a mentor at work. Host Michel Martin discusses the findings with Linked-In's Nicole Williams.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, when your loved ones open presents from you and they say, gee, you really shouldn't have, do you get the impression they really mean you should not have bought that whatever? Well, maybe this year, you might want to skip the Christmas sweater and listen up for our tips on affordable, tech-savvy gifts for the holidays. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, we have some advice on giving your career a boost. It's become almost a cliche that mentors can be mighty helpful in launching or advancing in a career. But according to a recent survey conducted by the professional networking site LinkedIn, nearly one out of five women say they've never had a mentor in the workplace. It also shows that there's a shortage of female mentors for female employees in the baby boom generation.

To talk more about this, we called Nicole Williams from LinkedIn. She's also a career coach for women. Thanks so much for joining us.

NICOLE WILLIAMS: My pleasure, Michel.

MARTIN: Tell me why LinkedIn decided to ask this question.

WILLIAMS: Yeah. You know, it's just - LinkedIn is always trying to elicit new information from this massive database and, you know, I think knowing that mentorship is so critical and important in terms of a woman's career development. We were just really curious to see to what degree, you know, women were utilizing mentorship in their career and, you know, how successful they were finding it.

MARTIN: Why does this whole mentorship question matter as much as you seem to think that it does?

WILLIAMS: Oh, my gosh. Look, because at the end of the day, Michel, this is your career we're talking about. This is a woman's ability to climb the ranks, to get, you know, appropriately compensated. You know, there's a lot to this.

Relationships are key, and we know this is in a more competitive environment. Whenever the economy gets like this, it really does come down to your relationships and your connections and, you know, not only by virtue of, you know, what you can learn through someone else's experience, but their willingness to endorse you, their willingness to rally behind you and say, hey, listen. Give this person a chance. You know, I'm willing to stake my reputation on it.

MARTIN: We were curious about this, because your survey only focused on women. You surveyed more than 1,000 female professionals.

WILLIAMS: Right.

MARTIN: So we were curious whether women really are having a distinct experience. So we found two different surveys that confirmed that, in fact, men are more likely to get workplace guidance than women. They're more likely to have a mentor. They're more likely to be asked to be a mentor. They're more likely to have asked someone to be a mentor.

WILLIAMS: Right.

MARTIN: Why do you think that is?

WILLIAMS: You know, I think there's a couple of different things, you know, to consider, Michel. I think, by and large, women, in my experience, tend to want to be the givers. You know, like, they want to be the ones who are helping versus actually asking for the support and the assistance. And one of my experiences is definitely that women sort of have that got-it-all-together disease. They're trying to, you know, manage so many aspects of their life and they're kind of resistant to extending themselves and asking for help.

And that's one of the things that we found out of this study, is that women hadn't identified women who they thought would be helpful to them in their career, which I thought was really interesting. I think, too, a lot of the younger women who I deal with in my business, you know, they're mentoring, but they're not really calling it mentorship, per se. You know, they're definitely using men - and, frankly, women - to better themselves in their career, but they're not defining it as such. They're not calling it mentorship, per se.

MARTIN: That's interesting, though. One of the other surveys that we found that confirms this difference between the way men and women address mentoring responsibilities in the workplace found a couple of interesting findings.

One is that - one survey that was in the Harvard Business Review research report said that women believe that hard work alone will be enough, that hard work and long hours, not connections, account for their advancement, that there's a fear by older professional men to mentor young women because - and, also, it goes both ways, that they're afraid of perception issues, that they'll be perceived as having an inappropriate relationship - and that men are more free to cultivate these responsibilities because they tend not to be responsible for domestic responsibilities and caregiving, so that they have more free time.

WILLIAMS: Yeah.

MARTIN: Do you think that that's true?

WILLIAMS: Oh, yes. Yes, yes and yes. You know, like, on every front, quite frankly. I know even myself, you know, and during the course of my career, I've used male mentors, and there's been some question as to the intention, both on my part - because I think, sometimes, as a woman, if you're using a male mentor, the question, you know, inevitably arises: Is she getting the promotion? Is she getting the raise? Is she getting the career advancement by virtue of the relationship and instead of her hard work?

But I do think that there's a double-standard around women seeking out men for support. And inevitably, what we know, you know, statistically, is that men are in the positions to actually be able to leverage their, you know, authority and clout to actually help advance women.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're having our weekly Money Coach conversation, and we're talking about a recent survey conducted by the professional networking site LinkedIn that looks at issues women face while trying to gain mentors in the workplace.

Our guest is Nicole Williams from LinkedIn. She's also a career coach. One other data point that we saw in this Harvard Business Review research report said that - and this was a surprise to me - that women benefit from, but rarely get sponsor guidance on how to adjust their style, clothing and executive presence to look the part of a leader.

But that is feedback that men readily give to other men, which surprised me, because I would have thought that women are kind of acculturated to offer feedback on style, to talk about it, and that men are not so much, at least - and so a total surprise there.

So let's finally, in the minute or so that we have left...

WILLIAMS: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...you talk about the fact that there does seem to be a difference with the younger generation, but baby boomer women less likely to have a mentor, be asked to be a mentor, but that younger women are far more likely to have a mentor, to be a mentor.

So that's one encouraging sign, and you've pointed to one of the potential reasons, that perhaps there were so many fewer women in leadership in the boomer generation that there was a sense of scarcity.

So let's say that you've bought into the idea that this is important. How then do you recommend that people go about finding a mentor?

WILLIAMS: Yeah. You know, I think that you've got to, A, get out there and ask, Michel. That's the one thing that, you know, it really astonishes me, you know. And I know that it's kind of a difficult question - like, will you be my mentor - because it can feel kind of daunting, you know, on behalf of the mentor. But you know, you're not going to get this kind of support without asking for it.

And I think you've got to ask in the context of: I am going to take responsibility for this relationship. I'm going to do the heavy- lifting here. I'm not asking for you to, you know, use your reputation, to use your contacts to my advantage without me working hard.

MARTIN: What if the person you really want to mentor you says no?

WILLIAMS: Yeah. You know, how devastating is that? I think, you know, you've got to ask the question: Why? You know, they may have a reason that you can help mitigate, so if it is a time concern - I encourage a lot of young women, for example, if you're great with technology, you know, to offer up a trade. So if you're willing to help me out with my career and spend some time with me, let me - you know, let me download your iPod. Let me help, you know, organize your photographs on your computer. There's a lot of things that younger people can do and, frankly, older people. But we all have assets. We all have something we can offer.

And, you know, feel free to offer up something in return for their time and investment in you, and, you know, don't think that it necessarily has to be specifically career-related. It could be - I'm a new mom. It could be offering to, you know, take care of my kids for a couple hours while I do some work. That would be really helpful.

MARTIN: It would be really helpful.

WILLIAMS: Yeah. It's just, like, save me some time. Sure, I'd love to help you in your career.

MARTIN: Nicole Williams is with the professional networking website, LinkedIn. She's also a career coach and author, and she was kind enough to join us from our studios in New York.

Nicole, thanks so much for joining us.

WILLIAMS: My pleasure, Michel. Thanks.

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