The Awful Truth About Corporate Mentor Programs

Excerpt from “DISRUPTERS: Success Strategies from Women Who Break the Mold” by Dr. Patti Fletcher (Entrepreneur Press; January 16, 2018).

Corporate mentor programs for women don’t work.

There. I said it. Hang me. Run me out of town. Kill the messenger.

I am well aware that millions—billions—of dollars are being spent on developing corporate mentoring programs for women. Harvard Business Review’s cover story for July/August 2016 was “Why Diversity Programs Fail,” and addressed many of the costs of failed programs to promote diversity, including gender diversity. You would think that as a proponent of women’s equity, I would cheer on these initiatives. And I absolutely would…if they actually worked.

They sound great. “Let’s pair new hires and young professional women with mid- and upper-level executives. They’ll help the newbies emulate the success they’ve experienced themselves. They’ll be the role models for the next generation of women leaders. Okay, HR, get that going.”

But I’ve yet to see any significant study showing that these programs by themselves make a dent in gender equity. They sound great, but unless there’s a true cultural shift supporting the initiatives, mentor programs are just window dressing.

In the report, “Women as Mentors: Does She or Doesn’t She?” the authors found that, of the companies with a formal mentoring program (only a little more than half), women mentors responded that they had received:

  • No training: 22%
  • Low or very low-quality training: 31%
  • Moderate quality training: 28%
  • High or very high-quality training: 20%

To put it another way: only one-fifth of one-half of companies provide quality mentoring.

In another study of coworker groups, women reported having more mentors than their male counterparts. Yet when controlling for industry, work history, stated ambition, and even whether they wanted children or not, the women received $4,600 less in wages than their male peers. Even with a mentor, they still didn’t get what they guys got.

Overmentored. Undersponsored.

You don’t have to dig very deep to find the problems. Women often find that their mentors just want them to do more. How many meetings can they attend? How many more presentations can they deliver? How many more projects can they take on? How much more can they travel? While those mentors probably have good intentions, how much does such advice help?

You know what would move the needle? Mentoring programs for the white guys at the top. Women like Ursula Burns and Dr. Sophie Vanderbroek could work one-on-one with the board and the C-suite showing them how bring their companies into the 21st century. Instead of continuing with their white- and masculine-oriented business practices, they could learn how to adapt to today’s world. Now that’s a mentor program worth pouring billions into.

Diversity vs. Inclusion

If I hire a “diversity candidate,” but I’m fine with all the heads of major projects looking just like me, then I haven’t changed anything. It looks like I’m doing something, but actually I’m just throwing a bigger blanket over it.

I’ve achieved diversity; my team includes someone who isn’t like the rest of us. But if I don’t include you in our discussions…if I don’t consider your point of view…if I don’t value your contributions…if I dismiss your ideas, talents, and experience...while you may be physically present, you don’t really have a seat at the table. If you have to act like me in order to succeed, then I wasn’t looking for new ideas; I just wanted a nice picture for the Website.

I have diversity, but I don’t have inclusion.

That’s why most mentoring and diversity programs don’t work. Like everything else big companies do, they use a classic top-down approach: “The big boys are going to figure how to fix this, guys. Here, look, we have a program. We need to teach you, train you, and model what we want to see from you. Run off, do what the facilitator says, then come home and get back to work. Problem solved. Next issue.” Foisting a mentoring program onto employees just doesn’t work.

Even if the initiative actually does its job and opens the participants’ eyes to the real problem, this is what they hear when they get back to the office: “Us change? No, we’re not going to change. The culture we have here is fine. You need to adapt to how we do it here. What? Think about accommodating someone other than the type of managers we’ve been employing here for 50 years? Are you crazy?!”

Right. It’s not you, it’s me.

Every year, DiversityInc makes a questionnaire available that ranks each participating company’s diversity metrics against others. In its 2015 survey, it analyzed the top 50 companies for gender equity and found that all of them had:

  1. Strong, cross-cultural mentoring programs with a high level of senior executive involvement
  2. Active women’s employee resource groups, used for recruitment, engagement, leadership training, and talent development
  3. Flexible workplaces, usually with individualized programs

Of those 50 companies, DiversityInc said 21 stood out as uniquely oriented toward women. (Full disclosure: I consult for one them, Kaiser Permanente, on gender equity issues.) Those companies all had above-average female representation (not just compared to the U.S. average but compared to other companies in the top 50) in management and senior executive positions, as well as on their boards of directors.

Here’s my point: These companies aren’t great for female professionals because they have mentoring programs. These companies are already focused on gender equity…and so they happen to have great mentoring programs.

Studies point out that with diversity programs, if changes aren’t made to the process that truly impact diversification—such as recruiting or management development—those diversity programs fail.

In short, a mentoring program isn’t going to fix your gender gap problem. Pouring more money into it won’t help. If your company wants to truly help women, it has to address the inherent bias corporate culture has against women.

Trying to get women to the top without changing the structure (i.e., the culture of the company) is like a game of Jenga. The move may work, but it’s on a shaky structure, at best.

Excerpt from “DISRUPTERS: Success Strategies from Women Who Break the Mold” by Dr. Patti Fletcher (Entrepreneur Press; January 16, 2018). Reprinted with permission of Entrepreneur Media, Inc. © 2018 by Entrepreneur Media, Inc. All rights reserved.

Dr. Patti Fletcher is a leading advocate for women in business leadership and technology and an authority on how to create a culture of inclusion to drive results. Recognized as a futurist and gender equity advocate, she advises corporate executives and board members from lean start-ups to Fortune 100s, from small community organizations to large global nonprofits. For more information, visit: https://www.entrepreneur.com/author/patricia-fletcher

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