Next Generation of Female Leaders Needs Strong Mentors

iStock_000007716967XSmallBy Laura Ratcliff

It’s been widely reported that women are attending college at the highest numbers in history. In fact, for the first time, the work force has more college-educated women than men, according to the Census Bureau – 37% of employed women held at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to 35% of men. The same trend holds true for graduate programs at the master’s level. Only 7.1% of men over 25 have completed a master’s program, compared to 8.1% of women. High achieving women are flooding into the professional workplace, and these numbers are only expected to rise.

Yet, a disturbing report from Harvard University highlights a serious gap in academic honors accorded to women in the class of 2009 at the Harvard Business School – which suggests a troubling trend in the nature of women’s participation in the workplace as well.

The study points out that these extremely smart, high performing women are self-censoring, even in business school. A lack of mentors may be to blame.

The Problem

The top five percent of graduates at HBS are known as “George F. Baker Scholars.” Even though 35% of the class of 2009 was female, only 11% of students who were accorded the honor of being a Baker Scholar were women. Honors for the top 20% of students are also handed out for first and second year students at HBS. In 2009, only 21% of first year honor students were female, and only 22% of the second year students were female.

Once the issue was made public, there was some slight improvement in numbers, largely because of “awareness around the issue,” according to Andrea Ellwood, one of the involved students. The number of women who received first and second year honors went up significantly. Complete figures were not available for the class of 2011, which graduates on May 25th, today.

Year Baker Scholars Female Baker Scholars Male First Year Honors Female First Year Honors Male Second Year Honors Female Second Year Honors Male
2009 11% 89% 21% 79% 22% 78%
2010 20% 80% 23% 77% 28% 72%
2011 30% 70%

Authors of the study say that there may be behavioral reasons for the academic gap. According to Megan Lesko, women “tend to self-censor” more than men do. The study reports that women are less comfortable participating in class than men, and they “do not view their experience as positively as men do.”

The question that begs to be answered is: why? Why are women feeling such a sense of discomfort that they are not performing as well at this level, even though undergraduate female students at Harvard tend to outperform their male counterparts in GPA scores? Surely it can’t be just because more men enter the program with technical or business undergraduate degrees than women.

Where are the Mentors?

The answer may be in a lack of mentoring available, especially from other women. Men far outnumber women on the HBS faculty. Out of 93 full professors on staff at HBS, only 17 are women. Only two of the 11 high management practices professors are women. At the associate professor level, 11 out of 45 are women, and at the assistant professor level, 16 out of 43 are women. This lack of female role models and mentors may have a serious impact on female MBA students at Harvard.

According to Authors Deborah L. Cullen and Gaye Luna, the role of female mentoring is critical to women’s success: “The significance of women mentoring women is a powerful concept. Same-sex role models appear to be more important for women.”

With the ratio of female professors at HBS far below the ratio of female students, there just aren’t enough female professors available to fulfill the role of mentoring that may be needed. While Harvard is working to address the issue of the academic gap with “Participation Workshops” led by faculty and second year students, there may not be enough of the type of “psychosocial mentoring” Cullen and Luna say women need: “Women require a full mentoring experience, which stresses career as well as psychosocial aspects in order to achieve high-level management positions within an organization.”

Celeste Adamson, a graduate student at San Jose State University in California, agrees that women mentors can be vital to academic success at the graduate level, and on the job. Adamson is pursuing a Master of Science Degree in Human Factors and Ergonomics. Currently employed by Symantec, Adamson completed her internship at Oracle, where she had two strong female mentors. Adamson believes that in a male dominated environment, women may have the feeling that they must “prove themselves” to be as competent as men.

Adamson mirrors what Cullen and Luna say about the need for female mentors: “It made me feel a lot more comfortable about what I was doing and the choices I was making. I felt more confident knowing that women who came before me went through a lot more than what I’ve had to go through.”

During her internship at Oracle, Adamson was given the opportunity to “do things on a professional level that I hadn’t had the chance to do before.” She also says that she knows that the work she completed at Oracle prepared her for her new job at Symantec. Said Adamson, “They were willing to throw me a bone. They treated me like an equal; they socialized with me, and gave me professional and personal advice. Anytime I got feedback from them, it was a little more important than other people’s feedback, because it was inspiring.”

Adamson, who expects to graduate with academic honors in December, also says that volunteering in professional organizations during her graduate program exposed her to women who are movers and shakers in a male-dominated field. “It’s exciting to see a woman take the stage and talk about her research.”

Although it may take years for women to reach academic parity with men in some graduate programs, formal mentoring programs during internships and in graduate programs may be an important piece of the puzzle.

0 Response

  1. It is a mentorship issue or a sponsorship issue? The Center for Work Life Policy has done a lot of work on this and I was just interviewed for an upcoming article on the subject for HBR. I am very surprised by the results of this study and I wonder if results are similar for other graduate programs? In undergrad programs? How subjective is the grading system at HBS? Where marks are more based on class participation, group problem solving, and perceptions of the mainly male teachers, the result becomes more understandable. Lots of studies have noted that women have to work harder to get their ideas heard and recognized. Great piece.

  2. There is a wonderful book called “The Next Generation of Women Leaders” by Selena Rezvani that speaks to many important topics, one of which is mentoring. This is an excellent read for any young woman looking for ideas on how to have a successful career.