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Do Your Mentees Look Like You? That’s a Problem

When mentors and mentees look alike, it creates another challenge for women and minorities.
By: | January 17, 2019 • 2 min read

How does your talent succession look—are the workers you’ve chosen to mentor a mirror image of you? According to new research from the Center for Talent Innovation, it’s uncommon for mentors (or sponsors as CTI calls them) to select protégés who look different than themselves.

Among 3,200 college-educated, white-collar professionals, CTI found that 71 percent of those who identified as sponsors said their protégés were the same race or gender as themselves.

This finding “reinforces what we’ve known on a gut level for years,” said Julia Taylor Kennedy, senior vice president at CTI. “People transfer power to others who make them feel comfortable … Our unconscious biases draw us to people like ourselves.”

Following the #MeToo movement that rocked the world last year, it appears that male leaders are now afraid of breathing the same air as their female colleagues. Jonathan Segal, an employment lawyer in Philadelphia, told the Washington Post that clients’ male leaders won’t close the door to their office if a woman is in there. Men have also gone as far as to request separate travel arrangements from their female colleagues. The clients come to Segal seeking legal advice and how to explain that these actions are wrong. It’s gotten to the point that Segal has held training programs for clients that he dubs “safe mentoring.”

“Not wanting to be one-on-one with women or not wanting to be in the same room with a woman—I don’t think a lot of male leaders consciously connect that obstacle with career advancement for women,” said Taylor Kennedy.

Some companies are trying to nip this in the bud by offering sponsorship programs that require (or strongly suggest) executives choose a protégé from a different demographic, she added. And surrounding yourself with diverse colleagues is a boon for any organization. For example, McKinsey research found that companies ranked in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.

“When a sponsor or a senior-level advocate aligns themselves with diverse protégés, they are better prepared to face the global marketplace,” says Pooja Jain-Link, senior vice president and head of research at CTI. “Powerful individuals have an opportunity to develop this crucial workplace relationship. As our research shows, the returns can be tremendous.”

Danielle Westermann King received her bachelor’s degree in English from Temple University. She has written and edited articles for various print and online healthcare publications.

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