Organizations benefit greatly from mentoring high-potential female employees and grooming them for leadership roles.


There’s ample and compelling evidence that organizations benefit from increased gender diversity, including improved profitability, innovation and decision-making. But despite that, the vast majority of female workers keep knocking their heads squarely into the metaphorical glass ceiling, unable to rise above middle-management positions.

The numbers are startling. According to a recent study performed by Catalyst, a nonprofit research group, women account for nearly 47 percent of the national workforce, yet only a little more than 5 percent of them are chief executive officers. Another survey performed several years ago by McKinsey & Company revealed that 140,000 women at 60 leading U.S. companies — or roughly one-third of all the female professionals at those companies — are mid-level managers. But only 7,000 hold senior-management positions.

The solution to this vexing problem? Provide mentoring for high-potential women, defined as those who demonstrate the ability to move beyond their current role and contribute to their organizations, says Dr. Rosina Racioppi, president and chief executive officer of Women Unlimited Inc. The consulting firm focuses specifically on helping organizations develop female leaders.

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“Research performed by Carnegie Mellon University shows that diverse teams are more innovative and smarter than nondiverse teams,” Racioppi says. “That’s not because adding women to the mix raises the teams’ IQ. It’s because when people different from you challenge your assumptions, it forces you to more clearly articulate your point of view.

“While that may sound easy, it’s not,” she continues. “It’s actually really hard. It’s more challenging to manage a diverse team because it’s more disruptive than how you might operate normally, due to the more divergent opinions and the unease that people experience when working with people different than them. But once you get over that, you can be so much more effective.”

If adding more women to the ranks of senior management is so beneficial, then why don’t more organizations do it? In some cases, it’s self-inflicted. Some women don’t even apply for promotions because they don’t feel they’re qualified, plus they’re typically not as good at self-promotion as men, Racioppi says. In fact, one study shows that men will apply for a promotion if they feel they meet roughly 60 percent of the job requirements, while women will do so only if they believe they meet all the criteria.

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Unconscious bias is also a big factor, she adds, pointing to research that shows organizations and decision-makers often view male and female capabilities differently. In general, men are promoted based on their potential, while women are promoted based on their performance, she explains.

Furthermore, women and men have different expectations of and experiences within organizations. Many women figure if they just do stellar work, that alone will speak for their capabilities. They’re also not naturally invited into the same networks as men and they usually don’t receive any guidance about how to develop those kinds of business relationships, Racioppi says.

As such, even when women do assume higher-level leadership roles, they’re often ill-equipped to navigate this new corporate terrain. “They’ve reached that point through the quality of their work, not because of the relationships they’ve formed across the organization,” she explains. “That’s why mentoring becomes so crucial.”

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Women Unlimited teaches females how to develop beneficial relationships with senior managers that can help them flesh out their workplace development and address challenges they encounter. “We help create a structure for mentoring that provides access to senior leaders,” Racioppi explains. “Then they learn how to create developmental relationships. After our program ends, women are better able to go back into their organizations and develop these ongoing relationships that will support their development going forward.”

The challenge for organizations is to identify their high-potential women, select senior managers who would make good mentors and then teach them how to create effective relationships with their mentees. “The differences are in the subtleties,” she points out. “It becomes a challenge because organizations are trying to find and define, say, five key reasons why the women in their organizations aren’t advancing, and that’s an impossible chore.

“Everyone’s challenges are unique,” she continues. “I believe it’s critical to give women the tools they need to assess where they are and identify the challenges unique to them, then give them the resources to develop a plan to overcome those challenges.”

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Racioppi says high-potential women don’t necessarily require female mentors. In fact, having male mentors helps women see how men handle various situations, and at the same time, it makes those male leaders more aware that their perspectives perhaps aren’t as broad as they should be.

Successful mentoring depends heavily on mentees establishing a clear focus for their mentoring relationship. For example, what are their career aspirations and how can they go about achieving them? Or perhaps they’re not sure what the next career step is, and they need help figuring that out. “The intention piece is critical,” Racioppi notes. After applying what they’re learning, the mentees then must be “open and vulnerable” while explaining what’s working and what’s not.

“Mentoring is a learning relationship, so if you’re not transparent, you won’t gain anything from it,” she says. “You need to hold yourself accountable for sharing your experience and be open to thinking about it in a different way. Over time, you’re broadening your thinking and your approach and creating a sustainable shift in how you do things.”

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At the same time, it’s important that organizations examine their work cultures and find unintended barriers that sabotage female advancement. For example, research shows that managers often perform job appraisals differently for women than for men. Male feedback centers on how they can grow their skills to become viable candidates for promotion, while female reviews tend to focus more on how they’ve executed their responsibilities during the past year or on their interpersonal skills.

“It speaks to a certain mindset,” Racioppi says. “I don’t think it’s because men out there want to harm women. I think it’s a very subconscious activity. That’s why it’s so important for women to get the tools they need to navigate the organization. They need those resources as well as male counterparts.”

Mentors should not be viewed as someone who will solve the mentees’ problems. Moreover, good mentors should be self-learners. “One thing I’ve heard from women during my research is that good mentors ask good questions that helped them solve whatever issues they’re facing,” Racioppi says. “A good trait for mentors is curiosity about not only the mentee, but their goals and how mentors can help them. If mentors maintain that curiosity, everything else will fall into place.”


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