How DEI Can Fix Mentorship’s Pipeline Problem

How DEI Can Fix Mentorship’s Pipeline Problem

Corporate mentor programs face affinity bias head-on to create lasting impact with inclusivity.
Peggy Schroeder, Head of Enterprise Learning & Leadership Development, The Hartford
Peggy Schroeder, Head of Enterprise Learning & Leadership Development, The Hartford
After 17 years with The Hartford, Oscar Harris is moving on – within the company, that is.
The claim account executive is enrolled in the company's PODERLift (Program of Development for Exceptional Results) mentorship program, which is designed to support high-performing Latinx and Black professionals by developing an individual's skills and network in preparation for a leadership role.
"I am exploring my next career opportunity within The Hartford. I want to be intentional with my preparation, growth and development,” Harris says. “I want to be ready for my future role before I find it or something of interest becomes available. PODERLift allows me to develop with a group of highly talented individuals who also want to grow and boost their individual candidacy."
A co-lead of the Florida North chapter of the company’s employee resource group BIPN (Black Insurance Professionals Network), Harris is a skilled networker and routinely organizes impactful cross-team events for the group. Even so, formal mentorship affords additional visibility and growth opportunities.
“I liked that the concept of a PODERLift mentor isn’t someone who just gives you feedback and advice. They walk this career path with you side-by-side. They can give you access to their network,” Harris says. “Mentorship begins to transition and grow into a quasi-sponsorship. To me that’s pretty powerful,” Harris says. “It’s allowed me to gain exposure to the broader organization, while also preparing me for those opportunities and conversations.”
The hour-long monthly mentor sessions resulted in one more unexpected win, too.
“It helped me truly understand what I had accomplished in the last 17 years. To say it’s been a boost of confidence would be an understatement,” Harris says. “In redoing my resume, redoing my LinkedIn, I realized, this guy’s not half bad on paper,” he says with a laugh. “Maybe I've been selling myself short.”

Workplace Mentoring Evolves To Address Bias

Programs such as PODERLift speak to the evolution of corporate mentorship programs, which place a focus on creating equitable advancement opportunities.
Looking at CEO leadership across the U.S. to date, only 21.1% of all CEOs are women, 78.9% are men, and the most common ethnicity overall was white at 81.6%.2

CEO Leadership Across the U.S.

According to the Gartner 2021 Leadership Progression and Diversity Survey, “Human resource leaders cite a lack of diversity in the pipeline as the top challenge to diversifying the leadership bench.”3
Mentorship efforts rooted in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are built to address the pipeline problem, which can happen due to unconscious bias.
Also known as implicit bias or affinity bias, unconscious bias is something, like it or not, that everyone has: beliefs formed in our conscious without our awareness.4 Take, for example, a white, male mentor who tends to select mentees who are also white and male. This unconscious bias indicates a comfort level with those who look like him. However innocent, its effects add up and can be a step backwards to diversity and inclusion efforts, especially at upper levels of management as these mentees move up.5
Building equity in the corporate workplace was at the heart of a 2021 “Equity at Work” study by the global nonprofit think-tank Coqual. According to a press release on the study, 1 in 3 Black and Latinx men say their time to promotion was longer than that of peers. Among professionals with disabilities, 25% felt stalled in advancement opportunities, and women (particularly Black women) overall reported lower pay than their peers.6
"For years, we've seen a steady drop off in representation for employees who are Black, Latinx, Asian and female as they move up the professional ranks. Many factors contribute to this - primarily systemic obstacles and biased decision-making from leaders," says Julia Taylor Kennedy, executive vice president at Coqual. "Many people with disabilities and veterans are also more likely than others to say they experience inequities that contribute to a lack of mobility. For example, people with disabilities are more likely than those without disabilities to say their co-workers underestimate their intelligence and are excluded from meetings relevant to their jobs. Veterans are more likely than non-veterans to say they are evaluated on different criteria—and more harshly than their peers."
When it comes to mentoring, Sherry Hartnett, marketing professor at the University of West Florida and co-author of High Impact Mentoring: A Practical Guide to Creating Value in Other People's Lives, says bias can pop up when mentors and mentees are given the option to select their own partners.
“Birds of a feather tend to flock together. Leaders often choose mentees with similar backgrounds to themselves. When looking for a mentor, mentees often do the same thing," Hartnett says. “Bias-free mentoring offers more significant opportunities for growth and better supports diversity and inclusion efforts.”
Another component vital for mentorship equity is sponsorship. People sometimes confuse the two, which can lead to an employee not receiving the benefits of having a sponsor as they move up the career ladder.7
“It's important to distinguish between sponsorship and mentorship,” says Peggy Schroeder, assistant vice president of The Hartford’s enterprise learning experience team. A mentor plays the role of an advisor, providing counsel and helping a mentee learn and navigate corporate culture, she explains. A sponsor, meanwhile, functions as an “active advocate" for the sponsee, personally investing in the person's professional development by referring them, nominating them and introducing them to meaningful opportunities.
“Sponsorship of top talent has been shown to be a key intervention to fuel and diversify the leadership pipeline," Schroeder says.

3 Tips To Support Bias-Free Mentoring

When implementing a mentorship program, Sherry Hartnett, co-author of High Impact Mentoring: A Practical Guide to Creating Value in Other People's Lives, offers the following tips:
  1. Enlist outside oversight. Have someone who is not the mentor or mentee orchestrate the matching of mentors and mentees to create opportunity for development at all levels.
  2. Offer participants curated choices. Provide mentors and mentees with a diverse list of employees from which they can choose their own partner. This can be done with help from human resources or a program manager. Having a role in this process allows the mentor and mentee to have a greater stake in making it a successful partnership.
  3. Match beyond the basics. A mentee’s needs must match a mentor’s resources. In addition to that, matching based on common interests can encourage a personal connection. Hartnett also advises pairings have an ‘experience gap’ of 10-20 years so the mentor is experienced enough to lend support yet can still recall what the mentee is experiencing.
In addition to Hartnett’s steps, unconscious bias training for employees can help strengthen company culture and its mentoring programs. The Hartford, for example, offers a free Conscious Inclusion program as well as requiring business leaders to create and execute a DEI plan to address leadership accountability and creating an inclusive work environment.

Mentoring Success Stories

New pathways to mentorship and sponsorship are emerging. More than 80% of Fortune 500 companies now offer mentoring programs.8 And it's not just for-profits that are doing it right.
Nonprofit Disability:IN focuses on business disability inclusion, offering a mentoring program called NextGen Leaders which matches college students and recent graduates who self-identify as having any type of disability with mentors from its 400 corporate partners, including The Hartford.
"These young people with disabilities are the future innovators in business. NextGen Leaders are challenging businesses to move past awareness to disability acceptance. We all have things that make us different, and these things are something to celebrate not to cover up," says Shannon Maher, manager of NextGen Initiatives. "This work is not just important for our current class of leaders but continues to push the needle of disability inclusion into every area of business.”
“Our corporate partners are essential in providing examples for our NextGen Leaders on what success looks like in business," Maher says. “The importance of our mentorship program is to give our NextGen Leaders and students examples of what they can be."

Mentorship and The Future of Work

As mentorship programs evolve to become more inclusive, they also need to be resilient. Case in point: Re-working mentorship opportunities to flourish in remote and hybrid work environments.
The key? Training, says mentoring expert and noted leadership speaker Ellen Ensher, a professor of management at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Training and flexibility in how mentor-mentee pairs communicate.
“I think a successful program in 2022 understands that people are going to communicate in multiple ways,” Ensher says. “Programs need to provide support for people communicating in person and online.”
Navigating hybrid work is top of mind at The Hartford, Schroeder says. “We are helping leaders work to retain the feelings of equity that people experienced during the pandemic and remain vigilant to avoid 'proximity bias' that may occur as people begin to work in different arrangements. Whether you are fully remote, hybrid or in person, we want to ensure an inclusive work environment for all.”
1 What Exactly Is the Mentor's Role? What Is the Mentee’s?, Morag Barrett, Association for Talent Development, March 11, 2021
2 President/Chief Executive Officer Demographics and Statistics in the U.S., Zippia
3 Gartner Says HR Leaders Must Establish Consequential Accountability to Achieve Diverse Leadership Benches, Gartner, June 22, 2021
4 Implicit or Unconscious Bias, Charlotte Ruhl, Simply Psychology, July 1, 2020
5 When Potential Mentors Are Mostly White and Male, Alexandra Petri, The Atlantic, July 7, 2017
6 Equity at Work: Fulfilling Its Promise through Process, Coqual, October 6, 2021
7 Don’t Just Mentor Women and People of Color. Sponsor Them., Rosalind Chow, Harvard Business Review, June 30, 2021
8 Mentoring Trends for 2022: The Great Resignation Continues, Sam Cook, MentorCliq, January 7, 2022
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Lauren Curran
Lauren Curran
Lauren Curran is a journalist who specializes in career development and higher education. A former reporter with The Associated Press, she has also written for Brown University and Worcester Polytechnic Institute.