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Mentoring Gaps Create Leadership Divide

. / Credit: Mentor Image via Shutterstock

Could a lack of women and minorities on corporate boards and leadership positions be the result of gaps in mentoring?

That is what a new study published in the Academy of Management Journal is suggesting.  The research found that 28 percent of women and 22 percent of minorities serve on the board of directors for a company, but just 8 percent of women and 5 percent of minorities serve as directors of more than one board.  

"This is an important distinction, because holders of multiple board seats tend to be seen by other corporate leaders as members of the corporate elite, or inner circle of corporate leadership, in part because holders of multiple directorships tend to exercise disproportionate influence over corporate policy at each of the firms where they serve as a director," said study co-authors Michael McDonald of the University of Texas San Antonio and James Westphal of the University of Michigan. [See related content: How to Be a Good Mentor]

McDonald and Westphal believe that more minorities and women are not on corporate boards because they are not given the same mentorship opportunities as other board members.  

"On average, racial-minority first-time directors are 72 percent less likely [than white males] to be advised by an incumbent director to get the CEO's OK before raising concerns or questions about strategy or policy issues in formal meetings, and they are 69 percent less likely to be advised that directors are expected to provide advice and information to the CEO rather than exercise control over policy and strategy," wrote McDonald and Westphal. "For female first-timers, the comparable figures are 54 percent and 49 percent."

The lack of mentorship can manifest itself in a number of ways that hurt board members. Chiefly, the researchers note that without advice and direction, many first-time board members harm their reputation in the eyes of other board members. In turn, that can negatively influence how other board members feel about those first-time members. Dismissing women and minorities can end up hurting companies in a big way, the researchers say.

"Demographic-minority first-time directors tended to have stronger qualifications than white male first-time directors," wrote McDonald and Westphal. "In particular, on average, they had significantly higher levels of management experience, provided higher levels of advice and information to CEOs and demonstrated knowledge and strategic insight that were rated more highly by their peers."

The research was based on approximately 2,500 responses.