Mentoring and Sponsorship
Formal mentoring initiatives, in which the company pairs a senior person with a junior person, have existed for decades. The benefits of mentoring have been well-documented and include, according to the Journal of Vocational Behavior, reduced turnover and increased job satisfaction and productivity for organizations. They also build social capital, which has been a proven asset and necessary ingredient for white-male career ascent. For mentees, mentors can increase self-confidence and assist them in developing the specific skills they need to move up. The Best Companies report 31 percent of all women now participate in formal mentoring, but there are discrepancies by major racial/ethnic groups. While 39 percent of Asian-American women and 37 percent of white women participate, only 21 percent of African-American women and 17 percent of Hispanic women participate.
Sponsorship is a newer concept, in which senior executives use their own political capital within the company to advocate for the advancement of a junior person. Some companies are now asking senior people to formally sponsor a junior person and are requiring that they pick one who is a woman or a person of color to ensure more diversity. But most sponsorship is still informal, and participation of multicultural women lags, according to the Best Companies survey. While 9 percent of white women participated in sponsorship initiatives, 6 percent of African-American women, 5 percent of Asian-American women and 4 percent of Hispanic women were protégés (the corporate term for people who are sponsored).
Dabbah and Robinson say Hispanic and African-American women might decide not to join mentoring or sponsorship programs because they aren’t seeing the value of the relationships. Or they might not feel comfortable or fully able to let down their guard. “Feeling different or isolated can make an individual afraid to stand out from the crowd or be noticed, Robinson says, “which can cause African-American women to hide their light.”
Dabbah recommends companies help multicultural women find a “culture mentor,” someone who can informally discuss how to navigate the organization (when to approach the boss, when to talk at a meeting, what to wear to certain functions). This person sometimes can be found through an employee-resource group, a company-sponsored organization focusing on a specific group, such as women or African-Americans. All the
Best Companies for Multicultural Women have employee-resource groups.
Robinson suggests encouraging women to use their mentors as sounding boards to find ways to differentiate themselves.
Focusing on devising innovative solutions to business problems and looking at what in a person’s background and education makes them unique can lead to advancement. “It doesn’t matter how junior their role is; they have to differentiate themselves so they can get noticed,” she says.
Akutagawa notes that for Asian-American women, even though their participation rate is higher, they might not compete for a promotion their mentor or sponsor advocates. Culturally, she says, many Asians are taught that they must
“be accomplished before you raise your hand to say, ‘I am ready for the next-level job.’” While this might be changing for younger women, she still sees many Asian-American women citing having to adhere to “impossible standards”: Be nice, be respectful and wait your turn, and you will be recognized when someone thinks you’re ready. She says it plays into a lack of confidence on whether to volunteer for the next job or ignore a statement when a mentor says you are ready.
The final take-away: While progress in getting more women of color to corporate leadership positions is slow, companies on this list are making strides in reaching and promoting multicultural women by using initiatives that build on understanding differences and developing relationships.