New research shows that female employees gain more from mentoring programs in the workplace than men, which, when you think about it, isn't so surprising.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg addresses mentorship in her New York Times best-seller Lean In, noting that "for the past decade, talk of mentorship and sponsorship has been topic number one at any women’s career seminar." Men, she's found, tend to ask more questions about managing a business and less about managing their career, which is the reverse of what women seem to ask of her. Sandberg said that many women are still "responding to the often repeated advice that if they want to scale the corporate ladder, they need to find mentors as well as sponsors."

To better understand these gender differences, Dr. Sameer B. Srivastava of the University of California-Berkeley conducted qualitative interviews with 40 employees who were once in a formal mentoring program at a software lab in Beijing. These employees shadowed a senior employee in another part of the lab for about a dozen days over a two- to three-month period; mentees attended meetings and worked on short-term projects. Mentoring programs are typically targeted toward new employees, senior managers, and high-potential employees, Srivastava wrote, with hopes of new employees absorbing a senior employee’s social capital — the different resources not available to them in their own social network.

"Formal mentoring, whether targeted or not, is widely believed to have a positive influence on [employees'] outcomes, and subjective well-being — for example, promotions, income, organizational commitment, turnover intentions, job satisfaction, self-esteem, work stress, and work-family conflict," Srivastava explained.

The interviews he conducted provided insight into the core mechanisms by which such programs produce change, including greater access to "organization elites" and enhanced social skills outside of what's available in their own personal social networks. Additionally, Srivastava conducted a field experiment that involved employees who experienced formal mentoring, and employees who had not.

In comparing the past and present employees in the mentoring program, Srivastava could see the size of participants’ reported social networks, if they had grown or not courtesy of the program. He found that female employees benefitted from simply being publically affiliated with a "high-status mentor" more so than men. Specifically, women gained more "legitimacy-enhancing skills" than men also in the mentoring program. And based on employee interviews, Srivastava found that this was because women are less likely to be visible in the organization and more likely to be marginalized as a result of exclusionary pressures; thus, a mentor led to a greater increase in visibility and legitimacy.

None of these findings necessarily surprised Srivastava, he told Medical Daily in an email. But he did mention that the prior evidence that links formal mentoring to social capital expansion has tended to rely on cross-sectional surveys that are not well-suited to identifying a causal relationship, which is not the method he used for his study.

"This study moves us closer to causal estimates because it is based on a quasi-experimental design," he said. "The qualitative evidence provides some insight into the mechanisms that underlie the relationship."

This begs the question: If these female employees needed a mentor with status to be seen in the workplace, is it because of the social networks they formed on their own, or is it because they were excluded from high-status networks to begin with? Srivastava said that this is an important question, but his quantitative field experiment was not designed to"distinguish between" the two. He does, however, reference structural exclusion in the study.

"Structural exclusion from high-ranking and resourceful positions, not a lack of networking knowledge or skills, prevented...women...from forming ties to powerful network members," he wrote. "Insofar as formal mentoring serves to rectify these past inequities, it should provide greater benefit to women than to comparably skilled men."

There are some study limitations, though: Srivastava focused on a single organization, meaning it's difficult to generalize "the findings to other contexts." But Srivastava does believe that these findings support the idea formal mentors can addresses differences in women's and men's social networks at work.

"I will leave it to others to interpret the findings as encouraging or discouraging," he said. "I tend to see them as encouraging in that they point to a concrete kind of program that appears to help address an important source of gender inequality in the workplace."

Source: Srivastava SB. Network Intervention: Assessing the Effects of Formal Mentoring on Workplace Networks. Social Forces. 2015.