How Do You Mentor Technical Women at Work?

Mentoring has positive effects for both protégé (mentee) careers and organizations. Mentors also benefit. Protégés experience advancement and reduced work-family conflicts. Organizations experience improved productivity, recruiting, and employee socialization, acculturation, and retention. Mentors experience personal satisfaction, collegiality and networking, and career enhancement. Because of the advantages mentoring offers, it is one of the most common programs used for increasing women’s participation in the IT workforce. Furthermore, more than half of Fortune Magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work for in America had mentoring programs.

Volunteers have often been in mentoring relationships in the past. This experience gives them a realistic view of the costs and benefits associated with mentoring. Employees who have never experienced mentoring before overestimate the time and energy that being a mentor would require.

In some cases, programs fail to produce the positive outcomes generally attributed to mentoring. A benign failure is when selection criteria favor employees who would have succeeded anyway without a formal mentor. More damaging are the failed mentoring relationships. In the same way that other human relationships can go wrong, mentoring relationships occasionally have bad results. Protégés can lose self-esteem or have their careers sabotaged; mentors can be betrayed or have to deal with overly dependent protégés. Organizations can suffer too; when mentoring relationships are negative, productivity can be reduced. For these reasons, it is important to carefully construct a mentoring program that avoids or minimizes potential problems.

Important ingredients for successful mentoring are: voluntary participation; mentors and protégés having input on the matching process; immediate supervisors not acting as mentors for their employees; easy termination of the relationship; mentors training that includes advice on how to handle problems in the relationship; communication of reasonable expectations about what mentoring can accomplish; proactive recruiting of mentors and realistic estimates of costs and benefits from the organization.



Mentoring occurs when an experienced person serves as a trusted counselor, teacher, and advocate to an inexperienced protégé. Mentoring usually happens on a personal level in the context of a relationship that develops over time, in contrast to the more remote and one-dimensional role modeling. Mentoring may combine affective support, such as offering a sympathetic ear, with instruction in professional behavior and tasks. It includes actions such as sponsoring, coaching, acquiring resources, and providing exposure and protection to the protégé.

Formal mentoring programs usually have several components. They match mentors with protégés, offer events or activities to develop mentoring relationships, provide resources and instruction for achieving the desired outcomes, and evaluate results for participants and the organization. Effective mentoring programs are carefully planned, with attention to specifying, communicating, and measuring objectives, and developing sufficient resources to implement fully.

Mentoring programs most commonly fail due to unanticipated high costs of operations; usually time costs for program facilitation are severely under-estimated. Although mentoring is not always a positive experience, it usually enhances career commitment for men and women, including women in male-dominated fields such as IT. Benefits include more rapid career advancement and career satisfaction, as well as enhanced academic self-confidence of women in disciplines where the majority of faculty members are men. Both same-sex mentoring and mixed-sex mentoring are effective, although participants may find same-sex mentoring more comfortable.


  • Please see NCWIT’s Mentoring-in-a-Box: Technical Women at Work,
  • Multiple publications from: Belle Rose Ragins, School of Business Administration, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; Terri A. Scandura, Department of Management, University of Miami.
  • Lois J. Zachary. (2005). Creating a Mentoring Culture: The Organization’s Guide. Jossey-Bass.

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Authors: Lecia Barker and J. McGrath Cohoon