Mentorship Expert Interviews

Break the glass ceiling with mentorship [an interview with W Brad Johnson, PhD.]

Learn how to design mentoring programs that break the glass ceiling and support professional development for underrepresented groups with practical tips from expert W. Brad Johnson, Ph.D.

Ryan Carruthers

Published on 

April 20, 2023

Updated on 

Time to Read

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Many organizations today focus on creating diverse and inclusive workplaces, but too often, women and other underrepresented groups hit the ceiling in their career growth. 

To address this challenge, mentorship programs can effectively support professional development and break down barriers. 

We recently interviewed an expert W. Brad Johnson, Ph.D. on how organizations can design mentoring programs that address the issue of low female presence in managerial positions. 

This article explores how to design mentorship programs that break the glass ceiling with practical tips for HR and Learning and Development managers, ERG administrators, and people leaders. 

To catch the full conversation, find it here: How to run mentorship programs that break the glass ceiling.

How to run mentorship programs that break the glass ceiling

Whether you're looking to start a new mentorship program or improve an existing one, these strategies will help you create a more inclusive and supportive workplace culture.

Who is Dr. Brad Johnson?

Brad Johnson, Ph.D., has spent years educating audiences across the world on mentorship and cross-gender workplace relationships. 

A Psychology professor at the US Naval Academy and faculty associate at Johns Hopkins University, Dr. Johnson doubles as an author of many books, including The Elements of Mentoring and Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women

His experience with mentoring, especially in the area of female advancement, prompted an interview.

Can mentorship bring more diversity to leadership teams? 

Few women occupy C-level positions, despite them comprising 56.8% of the U.S. labor force in 2022. Being a controversial subject, many opinions abound. The American Association of University Women cites old stereotypes, fewer connections, bias/discrimination, and lack of flexibility as some of the major roadblocks to having more women leaders. 

Dr. Brad Johnson considers mentorship a major player in bridging the gap between female workers and the traditionally elusive executive roles. He shares in our interview

I see more companies launching mentoring programs for high talent, and they're being deliberate about it.”

As he rightly mentioned, through deliberate mentoring, women can access valuable networks, learn from experienced leaders, and develop the skills and knowledge necessary to advance their careers.

Aside from supporting promising women, Johnson adds that mentoring program managers should, “have a specific structure, frame it in an aspirational way, and encourage top-talent females to sign up.” 

Johnson proposes another way to get participants. He says,

“Make the eligibility process based on nominations. Nominate those who’ve been identified with leadership attributes.” 

This will encourage high-talent women to join the program and instill a high level of confidence that'll be useful for completing the sessions. 

Dr. Johnson believes mentors should handle the nominations so that prospective mentees see them as people genuinely interested in their personal development. It will build trust, a trait every relationship needs to succeed.

Four gendered headwinds that women face in the workplace 

According to the 2022 Women in the Workplace report, “Women leaders are just as ambitious as men, but at many companies, they face headwinds that signal it will be harder to advance.” 

Even with vast qualifications and years of experience, female managers — especially women of color — suffer unprecedented levels of bias. Not only does this demoralize them, but such experiences widen the gender gap in leadership. 

Dr. Johnson shares four gendered headwinds women frequently encounter in the workplace. 

 1. Prove it again bias 

Men get promoted based on potential while women constantly have to prove their competence for tasks that they may have done previously.”

The prove it again bias, as outlined in Diversity Global Magazine, “imposes more restrictive standards on women in many organizations.” Men - even those without prior experience — are deemed competent, while their female colleagues must often demonstrate vast knowledge of an assignment to be accepted. Even when the task is complete, the prejudice isn’t. 

2. Maternal wall 

Dubbed “the motherhood penalty” by Dr. Johnson, the maternal wall is another common gendered headwind women face. He explains, 

As a male – if you find out I'm a father – on aggregate, I’m going get a bump because I'm seen as a busy dad who still does great work. Women, unfortunately, get a different treatment: ‘Oh, she's too busy and is often distracted to do this job.’” 

These rooted gender stereotypes and societal expectations against women clearly prioritize men's careers, giving them lofty status as breadwinners while downgrading women as caregivers and mothers.

3. Tightrope

The tightrope bias is another gendered headwind in organizations. Unlike men, women have a limited repertoire of leadership styles. Dr. Johnson provides more context. 

As a male, I can lead with whatever style suits me, and I get a lot of leeway. Women, however, are always walking a tightrope. If they choose a more assertive tone, they're labelled your favorite 'B' word. If they lead in more traditionally feminine, inclusive, and democratic ways, they risk being tagged incompetent. They're always wrestling with these methods and how to balance them.” 

4. Double Jeopardy 

Perhaps the worst bias of all, non-white women must deal with inequality based on both gender and ethnicity. This means fewer leadership opportunities than the average white woman. Dr. Johnson adds,

Women of color experienced all kinds of headwinds due to the intersection of race and gender. They have to work twice as hard to get half as far.”

Why mentorship is the answer for female advancement 

We've established that women have little representation in organizational leadership positions, and the ones who do suffer many gendered headwinds. How can we rectify this situation? 

Below are two ways to develop a unique mentoring program for high-talent females. 

1. Informal mentorship isn't enough 

While informal mentorship encourages natural development in the relationship between mentor and mentee, it may not always be effective. 

Dr. Johnson confirms this assertion:

"When you ask prospective mentors and mentees whether they prefer a formal relationship with their match or if they would like chemistry [informal mentorship], most people say chemistry. They go the informal way because they don't want to go on a blind date when it comes to mentoring. So, they find someone they're all familiar with.” 

While wanting to be matched with someone that shares one or two similar attributes with you isn't terrible, it's not the best route. 

When you rely on just chemistry, you have low rates of mentorship. And the first people to drop through the cracks tend to be women or people of color. They’re simply less likely to have access to mentoring if you don’t have structure.

2. Male leaders need to step up and mentor women 

Men occupy most senior leadership roles in companies, meaning they're better positioned to guide the junior female workers seeking to advance their careers. Dr. Johnson says

There's a lot of return for women when they have senior male mentors. They go farther, make more money, and gain more promotions. This is not because men are better mentors. It's just that they hold more rank and power and have substantial social capital that they can spend on promoting female mentees.” 

He adds that men who mentor at a cross-gender level tend to be “more inclusive, have stronger relationship skills, and have higher emotional intelligence.” Essentially, mentoring helps them sharpen the aforementioned skills, which are in high demand today. 

How to get started building a mentorship program for women 

To genuinely give women equal opportunity for career growth and advancement in the workplace through more visibility and increased connections, mentoring for women should become a necessity.

For companies wanting to launch a female-oriented mentoring program, Dr.Johnson recommends that HR and managers first identify the initiative's biggest goal. Doing this will guide their actions and increase their chances of success. He says, 

“Let's take the gender piece, for instance, and say our attrition for high-talent women is terrible; we're losing a lot of women instead of retaining them. We’re working really hard to recruit them and then lose them so easily. And in exit interviews, we’re finding out that there were very few developmental opportunities and mentoring. That’s where I’d like to begin.” 

He adds that instead of wanting an extensive program, companies should adopt a “nomination-based selective program,” which admits a select number of participants and lets the mentors deliver on “some specific outcomes like retention and advancement.” 

He also suggests that your, “mentors are carefully selected and well-trained to increase our chances of success.”

“mentors are carefully selected and well-trained to increase our chances of success.”

Bottom line

Developing a game-changing mentoring program for women is difficult but not impossible. As the above sections indicate, they already face numerous limitations in the workplace. Fortunately, Dr. Brad Johnson details what your company must do to achieve success in mentoring. 

Offering female employees more career growth opportunities, treating them fairly, and allowing them to experiment with different leadership styles makes them feel at home. This, of course, translates into better camaraderie and productivity.

If you’re ready to launch a world-class mentoring program, learn more about Together’s mentorship platform. Mentorship programs on our platform leverage our advanced pairing algorithm to create perfect matches at scale, keep track of mentoring relationships with real-time reporting, and have dozens of templates and resources for mentoring relationships.

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