Mentors, Initiative Can Help Women Succeed in Business

By Aliah D. Wright Sep 24, 2014

When it comes to getting ahead in business, women need to be more proactive about their careers. That was the focus of a panel discussion held at Georgetown University’s Annual Conference for Women in Business in Washington, D.C., where a group of panelists spoke to students, professors and business leaders about the need to incorporate strategies to increase the number of women in fields typically dominated by men.

Even though more women are graduating from college, the need for gender diversity in leadership positions is critical, said Greg Fleming, president of Morgan Stanley. “Not because it’s the right thing to do; [because] it’s the economic thing to do. It’s about business survival.”

More Female Graduates

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2013 more women (68.4 percent) enrolled in college than men (63.5 percent). BLS numbers from 2014 reveal that of those born in the 1980s, 32 percent of women had earned a bachelor’s degree by the time they were 27 years of age, compared with 24 percent of men. In fact, as one panelist said during the conference (and as reported last year in the Ohio State University study Gender, Debt, and Dropping Out of College), 60 percent of college graduates are now female.

Yet women still lag behind men in executive leadership positions, due to a lack of workplace flexibility and women themselves often not being confident enough to take initiative, the panelists said.

The Solution Lies Within

The panelists said the onus is on women to pay attention to the gender makeup of the workplaces they wish to enter to see if those workplaces are as diverse as executives at the companies say they are. Women also should ask for leadership roles, join networking groups, insist on workplace flexibility, seek out mentors and find sponsors, and request equitable nonwork-related activities with peers as well as clients (not everyone golfs or goes on hunting trips) where the proverbial male relationship-building often occurs.

​When a senior executive asks a woman how she’s doing, the answer should never be “fine,” said Lisa Cregan, Morgan Stanley’s managing director and regional director of the mid-Atlantic region. “You find a way to weave in information that helps you in your role … that shows you’re willing to work harder than any other human being there,” she said. Unfortunately, women “are not programmed to self-promote,” she added.

They also don’t apply for leadership positions unless they are confident they can do the job, said Erica Webber, partner, IBM.

“There’s research out there that has proven that women have a tendency to go forward for the best job only when they feel like they’re 110 percent qualified,” she said. “Men go for it when they feel they’re 50 percent qualified. They are confident they can learn to do it.” 

Success correlates closely with both competence and confidence, the panelists agreed, pointing out that studies show women drastically underestimate their competence—to their detriment in business.

Watch, Look, Listen

One way women can be more proactive when it comes to climbing the corporate ladder is to “go visit the offices [of the corporations they’re considering joining] and see what they look like, see who you see, see what positions they’re in,” Webber said. “Every employer will say they’re invested in diversity … but you have to see what they’re actually doing. Are they walking the walk?” She also advised women to see if there are networking support groups for women that encourage leadership diversity and succession planning.

“IBM has a woman’s networking group … that creates a space where women can encourage each other ‘to fake it til you make it’—until you have that confidence.”

She also suggested looking for gender balance at entry-, mid- and senior-level positions. Take note: “As people progress in their careers does that balance fall off sharply? For most it does, but how sharply does it fall off? One of the reasons I [chose] to work at IBM was I could see so many people I could relate to in leadership positions.”

Find Mentors, Sponsors

Conference attendees were also told to find mentors to help guide their career decisions and sponsors to give them a boost to the top. 

“It’s essential to have a mentor and one that believes in diversity—that will make a huge difference in your career,” said Roxann Taylor, senior managing director of marketing and corporate communications of Amherst Holdings LLC, a financial services holding company.

Cregan suggested women have two mentors, one who is “an advice giver, who helps you navigate the paths of your career,” and “the other one is a sponsor—and you won’t find them, they find you.”

How do you make yourself more discoverable to a sponsor?

Working hard to stand out helps. That way, potential sponsors—executives within the company—can see something in you that helps encourage them to help you move forward. 

“In our business,” said Sean Dobson, CEO and chairman of the board of Amherst Holdings, “it’s very much about merit, progress and self-advocacy. People want to see the effort you put forth, the confidence, [that you’re] being an advocate for yourself, speaking up. It’s not that you’re not going to get noticed; it’s that you’re going to be impossible to ignore.” 

Aliah D. Wright is an online editor/manager for SHRM.


Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Post a Job


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect