One of the most common pieces of professional advice I receive is to get a mentor. I am told to find someone with knowledge and experience in my field that can help me establish essential professional connections, provide me with valuable advice, and even serve as emotional support. As a young woman, finding a female mentor in particular has been framed as a way to confront gendered barriers that persist in the workplace. Women who have already faced these challenges will not only be able to pass along their own wisdom, but will also be excited to provide support to another woman trying to achieve success.
Recent research* by Paul Martorana of Hofstra University, Jeanne Brett of Northwestern University, and Catherine Tinsley of Georgetown University explored the effects mentoring actually has on the gender gap. The study concluded that a relationship with a mentor has different outcomes for men and women. Contrary to the advice I have received, having a mentor is not correlated with decreasing the gender gaps in compensation and advancement. In fact, men were the only ones in the study for whom being mentored was associated with getting a promotion. Additionally, though women who had been mentored earned higher salaries than those who had not, the gendered wage gap was not impacted. Instead, the inequalities that existed between men and women’s salaries persisted in spite of mentorship.
This research at first seemed to go against the countless testimonials I have heard about women’s fantastic relationships with their mentors. However, the study also found that mentorship does decrease the gap between men and women in socio-emotional satisfaction. Women with mentors were happier at work, regardless of promotion or compensation. The researchers explained that mentors’ impact on this facet of the gender gap might be caused by its personal nature. Even in the context of a gendered work environment, mentors can easily provide important advice and emotional support without challenging the norms of an organization. These results thus serve as a reminder of the limits of individual action in the fight to close gender gaps in pay and management. Though mentoring can be valuable for both men and women, we also need to reexamine the broader structures and cultures of our organizations to achieve gender equity at work.