Sarah Sciandri is looking for a woman, but finding one is tougher than she thought. The 34-year-old likes her job as a marketing manager for the Sacramento architecture firm Nacht & Lewis, but she wants a female mentor to help move her career forward. “I’m in a small company, I’m doing unrelated work to the architects, and most of the staff are men,” Sciandri says. “I look for successful women in Sacramento, but I feel like access to them is lacking.”
She tried connecting with women in the marketing field via LinkedIn — zero response. Then she emailed them with requests to meet over coffee. Just one woman replied, and only because she saw Sciandri’s email in her spam folder. “When I go to business events, they all advise, ‘You need to find mentors,’ and I think, ‘Yeah, but how?’” Sciandri says.
There’s the rub: Female workers historically have a more difficult time finding mentors than men. According to a 2011 LinkedIn survey of more than 1,000 female professionals, one out of five say they’ve never had a mentor at work.
Ask and You Shall Receive
Women who have mentors typically share one trait: They aren’t afraid to ask. Debra Waltman and Tosha Cherry both worked for the City of Sacramento when it launched a year-long mentoring program in 2012. The two agree that a formal mentoring program offered by an employer encourages more women to seek out mentors — or become one. Cherry had not heard of the program, so she was a little shocked when Waltman asked for her as a mentor, especially because the two were so close in age. “I said, ‘Why me? What do I have of value to offer her?’” Cherry says. “I was in a management position, but sometimes you don’t realize your own value until someone else points it out.”
Waltman felt stagnant and wanted a promotion. Meeting once a month for lunch, along with emails and phone calls, the women talked about how Waltman could move to the next level of her career by establishing her career goals, navigating office politics and obtaining an advanced degree. Waltman is now an administrative analyst at the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission. Unfortunately, the City’s mentorship program ended after one year.
Right out of college, Caity Maple knew having a mentor was key to her successfully navigating state politics. Soon into her job as a research analyst for California Forward, a nonprofit organization for bipartisan governance reform, she came across the mentor she wanted: Kathleen Van Osten, partner at the lobbying firm MVM Strategy Group. Van Osten agreed and quickly had a big impact on the 24-year-old’s political aspirations, from introducing Maple to high-profile speakers at political events to helping her get appointed as a board director for the Sacramento County Fair. “I’m very young for this position,” Maple says. “But Kathy knew I wanted to run for office, and she thought this would be a good position for me, so she put me in touch with her contacts at the Governor’s Office.”
When Maple once tried to thank Van Osten, her mentor shrugged it off, explaining it was her duty to the younger generation. Van Osten sees part of her role as a top lobbyist to encourage and help females following in her footsteps. “Politics can be exhilarating but challenging too, especially for young women,” she says. “I had the best luck with my mentors, both men and women. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them, so I feel a similar passion for helping out others starting out where I did.”
Power in Numbers
Another trait go-getters with mentors have in common: They have more than one. Maple has three others, besides Van Osten.
Jessica Kriegel, 31, an organization and talent development consultant for Oracle, has eight mentors. She says that, while she goes to each one for different needs and questions, they all share an investment in her success. In return, she shows them respect. “I choose their time wisely,” Kriegel says. “I come to them only when I need their guidance, I come to them with a list of questions and I do my best not to waste their time.”
While going through the Nehemiah Emerging Leaders Program, Kriegel hit it off with Doni Blumenstock, the program director, who she now considers an informal mentor and her “fourth mom.” “It was never a formal discussion. There was just chemistry between us,” Kriegel says. That chemistry compelled Blumenstock to help Kriegel land a board position with the Sacramento Philharmonic and Opera.
Blumenstock has helped multiple Nehemiah graduates steer through their careers. “I feel more like a bumblebee, carrying pollen from one place to another, connecting people that way, but more specifically giving encouragement or just listening, whatever that person needs,” she says. “It’s just part of my DNA.”
Women Helping Women
As more women step into the workplace and fill key positions, they’re forming their own mentoring efforts. She Shares, for example, is a year-long mentoring program started in 2013 to create the next generation of leaders. Women ranging from college students to professionals in their first few years in the workplace are paired with women at the top of their career game. In addition to being paired with mentors, mentees attend workshops on writing cover letters and resumes. They get access to She Shares’ quarterly events to hear high-profile speakers like Maria Shriver and UC President Janet Napolitano.
“Why can’t a business have a formal mentoring process, with a pool of women who are willing to be mentors?” Nancy Bui-Thompson,director of technology consulting, Public Consulting Group
Capitol Network, a group for women working in state government, started its mentoring program in 2013 to counter the old boys’ network of the legislature, says Chair Dorothy Holzem. The program has 44 mentees who are mentored by women with at least 10 years of experience working in the Capitol, lobbying or government relations.
Maple had the idea for a Women Empowerment Collective, focused on bringing a variety of women’s organizations together into a coalition, after seeing recent UC Davis data that women hold only 3 percent of executive-suite positions at California companies. “That got me riled up. My passion is to address that disparity and help teach young women how to go into a boardroom, negotiate a salary, get to that C-suite level.”
After reading Sheryl Steinberg’s book, Lean In, Allie Eklund, a financial consultant for Tridea Advisors, started the group Inspire Midtown so young Sacramento women could connect professionally. Like Maple, Eklund, 26, sees the need for a centralized mentorship program in the area. “I hear from older women that they’re willing to be mentors, and then I have this ever-growing group of young women who are looking to be mentored. Bridging this missed connection is exactly what I would like to do.”
Julie Freischlag, dean of UC Davis School of Medicine, has mentored dozens of medical students over the years. She has climbed her career ladder and doesn’t need a big promotion, so she sees the benefits of mentorship differently: Her young mentees keep her excited about medicine. “I can’t tell you how much I learn about new generations’ ways of thinking, new ways to do things — or the other day, a new way to get an X-Ray computer up that I didn’t know but my mentee knew exactly how to do,” Freischlag says. “Senior people want to feel relevant, not reverence, so it’s a mutual admiration.”
Where Does Big Business Come In?
Kriegel recently led a study for the Sacramento Business Review on gender diversity in the local workforce. Her data shows that, while nationally female professionals are three times more likely than men to say their gender has led to career disadvantages, Sacramento women are a whopping seven times more likely than their male counterparts to say the same. The study also found that local women aren’t fully participating in their employers’ efforts to get workers up the ladder. Roughly 30 percent of both male and female employees seek out solo or small-group coaching sessions, but 43 percent of men receive executive training while the number stagnates at 30 percent for women.
However, according to research done by Catalyst, a New York City-based nonprofit focused on female advancement in the workplace, mentoring doesn’t predict career success. “While it’s helpful, it doesn’t get you ahead,” says Anna Beninger, Catalyst’s research director. “What predicts advancement is sponsorship: having an advocate in your organization who is highly placed, sits at the decision-making table and puts your name forward for development opportunities and promotions. Men are much more likely to have those senior-level sponsors, and those are typically men.”
Catalyst is working with Fortune 500 companies to develop formal sponsorship programs that pair male leaders with junior female talent, with the goal of introducing women to job opportunities to which they don’t often have access. “The idea is once you get enough women into the pipeline and in leadership positions, they won’t need the sponsorship programs, but there aren’t enough women in senior leadership now for this to happen organically,” Beninger says.
Is it the company’s role to make an effort for its women workers? Should it try to make great mentoring matches via a formal program? Sacramento-based companies VSP and Sutter Health say their leadership training programs are for all ages and genders, not just women.
Kriegel believes mentoring is more successful when it happens organically. However, she leads a mentor-matchmaking program at Oracle, in which potential mentors and mentees are paired up via an in-house software program. Each mentee describes what competencies they want to develop, interested mentors describe what competencies they’ve got and an algorithm suggests the pairings. Every mentee is matched with multiple people, and it’s up to him or her to reach out and interview each of them before making a selection. “I think that’s the best way of doing a formal program,” Kriegel says. “The mentee still takes charge, and chemistry is still key to a successful relationship.”
Nancy Bui-Thompson, director of technology consulting at Public Consulting Group, president of SMUD’s board of directors and a mentor to many women, says business needs to make the effort. “I spent years at Deloitte, where they have a formal sponsorship process, and my sponsor fought for me,” she says. “Why can’t a business have a formal mentoring process, with a pool of women who are willing to be mentors? If I was a junior woman employee, I’d like to know who’d be interested in mentoring me. And I think if there was a call for mentors, most women would want to put their name in the hat. But it does take a company to make that happen.”
The benefits of mentorship from a mentee’s point of view are played up all the time, but what does a mentor get out of it? According to Beninger, mentorship pays the mentor — literally. She says mentors advance up the ladder more quickly and earn more themselves, almost $25,000 more per year. “That’s because they show their bosses that they truly care about the future of the company by doing things like investing in succession planning and improving employee retention,” she says. “So it’s not just the right thing to do it, there’s a business case. It’s a positive, mutually beneficial relationship.”
Sciandri says that there are a lot of reasons it can be difficult for female professionals to find the right fit: “Maybe it was because I was reaching out through email and they are too busy or aren’t comfortable responding to people they don’t know, maybe it was because I wasn’t at the right events they typically attend, or maybe because in my current position, I have all senior level males and haven’t felt comfortable seeking them out as mentors,” she says.
But there’s hope on the horizon: Sciandri says she recently reconnected with a woman she met last year at an event, and emailed her to ask for some advice over a cup of coffee. They met, and Sciandri says she’s optimistic. “I think we will continue to stay connected and I can see her being a mentor figure for me.”
Sometimes, you just need to keep asking.