Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging

Why women need mentorship in the workplace

Mentorship is a meaningful way to encourage the advancement of women in the workplace. We spoke to several women and non-binary folks to understand how they feel about mentorship and its impact on their careers.

Kinjal Dagli

Sr. Content Marketing Manager at Together

Published on 

February 9, 2022

Updated on 

October 7, 2023

Time to Read

mins read time

In 2023, women CEOs finally topped 10% of CEOs for Fortune 500 companies. They now outnumber men named John or James. 

As one Axios story sums it up: meh. 

Despite significant progress (and increase of 76%) in the Fortune 500, women CEOs have only increased 6% overall since 2017, and women in other leadership roles have only increased by an average of 3.4%. 

What’s more, women still face many challenges in the workplace, particularly if they’re also a person of color, have a disability, are LGBTQIA+, or are neurodivergent. These challenges include:

We can’t solve these issues overnight. In fact, The World Economic Forum says global gender parity could take an astounding 131 years to achieve because of various political, socio-economic, and cultural issues. 

With that in mind, we don’t claim to have all the answers when it comes to the gender gap in the workplace, but we do know one way to help women and non-binary folks grow their careers and achieve work-life balance: mentorship programs.

Mentors help women advance their careers — if they have one

Regardless of demographic, and whether you’re mentor or mentee, mentorship programs accelerate your career. 

Employees with workplace mentors are: 

Yet only 37 percent of women have had a career mentor. In the last year, only 27 percent of companies have implemented mentoring programs. And less than half of remote/hybrid companies offer mentorship programs, a definite downside for working moms who say remote work is a big draw — 68% call it a caregiving benefit.

The “Mini-me” effect makes it tough for women to find mentors

The challenge of finding mentors for women is a simple numbers game. About 71% of mentors choose mentees who look like them — that’s a huge problem when men outnumber women leaders.

That disparity also makes it tough to match ambitious women with high-talent female leaders, especially for the 80% of mentees who want to be mentored by someone who has taken a similar career path. 

“Having a mentor who is further along on the career trajectory you're aspiring toward—particularly another woman or non-binary person—can help you feel seen, increase your confidence, and help you navigate the challenges women and non-binary people face. Even just knowing that they got to where they are makes it feel more possible to do the same.” – Angela Rollins, Freelance Content Marketer

Michelle Ferguson, author of Women Mentoring Women suggests mentors look at what the mentee needs out of the relationship. A “mini-me” mentorship works really well if someone wants a mentor who shares a particular demographic. But many mentorships focus on professional skills, which anyone can teach.

The pandemic set women back; remote work created opportunities

The pandemic had a disproportionate impact on women in the workplace. Over 800,000 women left their jobs in September 2020 alone. That is four times the number of men who quit in that same period. 

There is a bright spot, though. Remote work (also spurred by COVID shutdowns) has given workplaces increased opportunity to become more diverse.  

“This [diversity] brings real benefits to decision-making, and ultimately, to business performance,” Sinead Donovan, chair of GrantThornton Ireland, said in the company's 2023 Women in Business Report. 

As these women reenter the workforce, they need mentors to show them the way. 

Software built for mentorship gives companies the tools they need to launch a successful program. Book a demo to see how.

Role models champion their professional development

Workplace mentoring programs provide female role models to other employees in the company, especially other women. 

“Seeing women in leadership positions where they are respected, their insights are valued, and their ability to influence/create real impact on a team or company signals to others, like myself, that it's possible.” – Evelyn Ly, Humi

These mentors are able to guide and advise these other women. They’re also able to inspire them to achieve more. Seeing a leader that you can identify with in your organization gives you confidence that you too can advance to that level. This is especially important for women of color, who are among the least represented in leadership roles. 

All women in senior leadership (38%) roles are more likely to sponsor women of color (WOC) than their male counterparts (23%). They’re also more likely to be allies, which can help advance careers for WOC.

“Mentorship in the workplace is particularly important for women and non-binary people because of how much gender bias there is. People who aren't men have less opportunity, are paid less, and trusted less. And that can have a huge impact on our confidence.” — Angela Rollins, Freelance Content Marketer

Women build a stronger professional network

Mentorships also allow women to find support and encouragement in their workplace. In a workplace where women are a minority, they may feel isolated. Developing a relationship with other women in business can help them feel more connected.

“Having someone in one's corner creates an immense psychological safety for women at the workplace.” – Anett Tarnokova, Butter

Women can also benefit by building networks of key and influential people to get to know other successful leaders through their mentors. These connections can provide women with the confidence to pursue new opportunities.

“Mentors have acted as my ‘anchors’ throughout my career by setting an example for me and giving me the courage to try things that otherwise might’ve seemed a bit too audacious and wildly out of my reach.” – Lizzy Burnam, User Interviews

What women need are support networks. These can be found in employee resource groups for women or formal mentorship programs. These communities or programs give women opportunities to build connections and find support. 

One example is The Forum, a Canadian-based non-profit that provides female entrepreneurs with mentors. Since its founding in 2001, The Forum has connected over 2000 entrepreneurs with career-changing mentors to help them build their businesses. They saw the need for female business owners to have mentors, and they built a community to fill it. 

Mentoring programs offer robust toolkits for career growth

When women mentor women, they can develop leadership skills as well as practical abilities to advocate for themselves. Likewise, female mentors can train and equip younger women with skills like negotiating for a raise. They can accelerate their development and provide what some describe as shortcuts to success.

“[Mentors teach us about] avoiding mistakes, taking shortcuts to success, and gaining advantages in general. That's significant because we, as women, have a different starting point than men have. So, I believe that any path can help us to have more efficiency in our professional lives.” – Andresa Araujo, Andresa writes

They can also offer advice on navigating their careers and finding a work-life balance. Women who have been mentored describe the experience and the skills they acquired as essential toolkits for their professional lives.  

“The greatest benefit to having career mentors — because I don't believe women should have just one — is to develop a toolkit from people who have "been there, done that," so you can develop your strengths across important areas of your career.” – Lani Assaf, Elpha

Male mentors provide additional opportunities for advancement

More than half of mentors are women, but men are in the majority of leadership positions. The unfortunate reality is that if men refuse to mentor women, it will prolong gender inequality in the workplace. 

“The biggest benefit of having a career mentor (no matter the gender) is that it helps you imagine what a brighter, more successful future could look like for you. I grew up in a low-income family with very few professional female role models—and the disparity in workplace representation between men and women meant that I struggled to find examples of women like me who were achieving the things I wanted to achieve.”  – Lizzy Burnam, User Interviews

It’s also important to note that in a Together survey of 50+ North American companies 68% of mentees said having a mentor from the same background was important to them.

But “same” doesn’t have to mean “same gender.” A study at UCLA revealed that women only prefer to be mentored by other women when they don’t know the mentor. If they have a male colleague they respect, they’re fine with a male mentor

“Some of my most impactful mentors have been male. In organizations where there were little to no women in leadership positions, men were my only option.”  – Lizzy Burnam, User Interviews

Men who mentor women have a positive effect on gender equality in the workplace as well. Male leaders can help women learn new skills and break down barriers to advancement. In addition, company leaders have a lot to gain from mentoring women, including stronger leadership skills and a crucial perspective on diversity in the workplace.

“Male leaders may not often get to see or understand what things look like from women's point of view. That perspective can be helpful for them and may help them rethink their beliefs about things like pay equity, the nuances of the responsibilities that women face, and so on." – Grace Lau, Dialpad

To combat any concerns men may have about mentoring someone of another gender, consider finding commonalities you can emphasize when pairing up employees. For example, you could pair up people of color, non-binary employees, or alumni from the same university. 

Mentorship reduces turnover and engages employees

Organizations that build workplace mentoring programs can improve their employees’ skill sets, increase engagement, improve productivity and reduce turnover rates

Mentorship is a major win for the employees and the employer. 

These programs create equity in the workplace, encourage cross-functional collaboration, and support informal mentoring — all critical aspects of employee satisfaction and retention. 

Mentorships create a more equitable workplace

Mentoring programs make the workplace more inclusive and equitable. For this reason, many companies have made mentorship a key part of their diversity, equity, and inclusivity initiatives in recent years.

“Even just knowing that a mentor got to where they are makes it feel more possible for me to do the same.” – Angela Rollins, Freelance Content Marketer

But there are only 53 female CEOs in the Fortune 500 — and very few are from marginalized groups. Just 7.5% of women and less than 1% of all Fortune 500 CEOs come from marginalized backgrounds:

  • LGBTQIA+: Beth Ford, Land O’Lakes
  • People of Color: Roz Brewer, Walgreens Boots Alliance, and Thasunda Brown Duckett, TIAA, and Dr. Lisa Su, Advanced Micro Devices
  • Disabled or Neurodivergent: None have spoken publicly about it.

Mentoring programs can help change those statistics. Women with mentors have more opportunities for advancement. When your employees achieve upward mobility, they are far more likely to stay with your company

Mentoring fosters a collaborative culture

Formal mentoring programs build a more cohesive and collaborative workplace by building strong professional relationships. Collaborative employees share knowledge, support one another, and achieve better outcomes — factors that have a significant impact on retention

Mentor relationships also offer more opportunities for collaborative training, like peer learning. But perhaps the biggest impact collaboration has on employee retention is that it decreases burnout while increasing productivity. Employees who collaborate feel more accomplished and supported, making them less likely to look for a new job. 

Formal programs also support informal mentorships

A formal mentoring program can help break the ice for more reserved employees who find it challenging to identify a mentor on their own. 

“A formal mentoring program is always the best door opener to start conversations for two reasons: 1) human nature — some might naturally seek out a mentor due to their extroversion and drive, others may need a "little push." In order for a workplace to reach their female workforce, having a formal program may increase the chances of success. And 2) chemistry is incredibly important in any human relationship. The benefit of a formal program is that women have an immediate conversation starter with someone tenured at the workplace.” – Anett Tarnokova, Butter

But not all mentorships need to fall under the umbrella of your corporate mentoring program. In fact, 82 percent of women found a mentor by reaching out to someone they felt was a good fit. 

“My mentors have all been informal ones, rather than part of an official program. I was mentored by women who took me under their wing because they took an interest in my career. I think that’s an important aspect of mentorship — having a champion or advocate.” – Carrie Chowske, Verbatim 

A formal program will naturally encourage employees to approach someone they feel they want to learn from at your organization. You can help create more connections by asking your leaders to reach out to junior employees they think might benefit from having a mentor.

[VIDEO: https://youtu.be/LY8KZZn2ckk?si=1Qj6-pGIN7fkR5Ub

Do women in the workplace need a mentor or a sponsor?

Ideally, a woman will experience both mentorship and sponsorship during her career. The way to decide which is best at a particular point in a woman’s career is to consider the type of guidance she or they are looking for. 

What a Mentor Provides

With a mentor, the focus is on growth and learning through development and goal-setting. They serve as role models and coaches for their mentees. Mentors aren’t always in leadership positions but are usually senior to their mentees in tenure or experience. 

Reverse mentorships can also foster strong relationships between senior and junior employees. 

“One of the most powerful parts of mentorship is having someone who believes in you. Especially when it’s hard for you to believe in yourself. It can allow you to see potential in yourself you couldn’t see before. It can make you bigger and give you the courage and strength to go for something in your career that stretches what you thought you were capable or worthy of.” – Mike Mantell (they/them), Relationship Coach

What a Sponsor Provides

In contrast, a sponsor focuses on career advancement. They serve as champions and advocates for their protégé. Sponsors are leaders in an area of interest for the junior employee. For sponsors close to retirement age, their protégé may be their intended replacement.

Sponsorships can be particularly beneficial for women of color or employees in the LGBTQIA+ community because of the advocacy a sponsor can offer. 

“I think women should have both, but sponsors can be especially powerful. A sponsor is more like a direct advocate who can help you find and land new opportunities. But a mentor — someone closer to your current level — can be very powerful in getting you to the next career step. I also think mentors can be more hands-on in helping you develop the skills you're seeking to improve.” - Lani Assaf, Elpha

Create opportunities for women with mentorship programs + Together

Women who have role models in the workplace have longer, more successful careers. Formalize this process for your company with a mentorship program backed by Together. 

Whether you're looking to support your ERG, onboarding program, DEI initiatives, or employee wellness, our mentoring software makes it easy for organizations to run a mentoring program. 

Learn more about how we can help by booking a free demo. Or start building your mentoring program today.

About the Author

scrollbar code:
close button

Hear how they started with Together