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Mentors can help women shatter glass ceiling

A well-placed, encouraging mentor can be key to getting  noticed by higher-ups, especially if you don’t have the stomach to let everyone know how great you are. The right mentor is especially important to women trying to break into the old-boy network. Your Career by Eve Tahmincioglu.

We’ve all heard of the glass ceiling, that invisible barrier that keeps minorities and women from getting to high-powered positions in Corporate America. But it’s not just a barrier of bias: The psyche of women may also be contributing.

We women tend not to toot our own horns, a key to climbing the corporate ladder. And let’s face it, we’re not inclined to be as aggressive in the workplace as our male counterparts for fear of receiving the dreaded “B” label. While I’m not saying every woman possesses these traits, career experts say there are enough of us out there to keep us pining for, but not quite in, the corner office.

So what should women do? Find a mentor now, girlfriend!

A well-placed, successful, encouraging mentor can be your champion if you want to get noticed by the higher-ups but don’t have the stomach to let everyone know how great you are. And a mentor can also help you navigate the ins and outs of what is still a good-ol’-boys network in the upper echelon of the business world. (Women hold only about 16 percent of corporate officer positions in Fortune 500 companies, and there are only 10 female CEOs among the biggest companies, according the research firm Catalyst.)

“I can’t stress enough how important mentoring is to achieving success in one's career,” says Sharon Allen, Chairman of Deloitte & Touche USA LLP. She credits the mentors she’s had in her career with helping her enter the small club of high-ranking women executives.

A key mentor for her was the managing partner in Deloitte’s Boise, Idaho, office where she worked early on in her career. “He would give me a little bit of additional confidence by standing by me and giving me that nudge to assure me I was doing the right thing,” she explains. “As I developed in my career and moved along up the ladder, I established new connections with people I felt were looking out for me.”

The lack of female role models, she adds, continues to hinder advancement for women, so women find themselves “establishing their own way and styles that work for them, and as a result, the additional reinforcement from a mentor is useful.”

One study of more than 500 executives in the health care industry found that mentors can lead to money and power.

“We discovered that women with mentors received more promotions than men,” says Anne M. Walsh, associate professor in the management department at Philadelphia’s La Salle University.

“In our study, the mentors provided access to promotional opportunities, which ultimately affected compensation,” she explains.  “Mentors raised the visibility of these women in the organization, and helped them to develop the skills for these promotions. Mentors are also instrumental in providing feedback about job performance (e.g. act as a coach) and help women develop the skills that are required to compete in the job market.”

At Sun Microsystems, Katy Dickinson, who heads up the company’s mentoring program, often sees women who are self-effacing and hesitant to put themselves forward. But the computer company’s mentoring program, in place since 2000, has helped many women “learn to say, ‘I did something well,’” she says.

Alas, women still don’t get the mentoring help they need as often as their male counterparts. Of those firms offering executive coaching to their employees, about 20 percent say women receive the service at a lower rate than men, according to one survey of 3,000 human resource professionals by Novations Group, a Boston-based employee training company. There was some good news, though. About 75 percent of those polled say women receive about the same amount of mentoring as men, while nearly 6 percent say females get more coaching.

Don’t put it off. Become a protégé today.

It paid off for Tammi Gatling. Early on in her career at Chubb Group of Insurance Cos., she was apprehensive and nervous about taking the initiative when it came to advancing her career but mentors helped set her on the right path. The manager that hired her at Chubb in 1995 became one of her first mentors, and the relationship developed because Gatling would go in and bounce ideas off of the manager and ask her advice.

While that relationship was informal, she signed up for Chubb’s formal mentoring program in 2003, and became an official mentee to Pat Key, who runs Chubb’s Women’s Development Council Mentoring Program.

“Pat taught me how to talk to my manager about what skill sets I might be lacking,” Gatling says.

The mentoring program has helped boost the number of women senior vice presidents at Chubb to 23 percent last year from 16 percent in 2001, and women holding the executive vice president title jumped to 17 percent from zero over the same period.

Women, Key explains, “were socialized differently than men, told not to speak up, to work hard and you’ll be noticed. But having someone to help guide you a bit, and having an interactive relationship with a role model is very critical to giving you a vision of what you can be in work place.”

It worked for Gatling. “I wanted to have a successful career and be a good mother, and my goal was to earn the assistant vice president title. I thought who better to ask about career goals but a person at Chubb who already had succeeded.”

Today she is an assistant vice president and a mother of two. “My next goal is vice president,” and she’s not embarrassed to say it.