'I wish I'd had a female mentor': what Rhodes Scholars say about the lack of change for women

Dr Kate Blackmon & Professor Susan Rudy

Dr Kate Blackmon & Professor Susan Rudy

Researchers who study leadership have found that supportive networks of people are crucial to the career development of high achievers. Despite the fact that mentors, sponsors, and role models are key to the formation of professional identities and career advancement, they may not be available to aspiring women, particularly to those who want lives outside of work.

Why? There are many reasons.  Senior women who could play such roles may not be present in the workplace, they may be unwilling or unable to serve, or in the views of young protégées, they may even be undesirable or negative role models.

To investigate this gender gap in career support networks we read over 120 interviews with women Rhodes Scholars collected by the Rhodes Project.  Our findings confirm both the importance of senior women in showing younger women that “people like me can do this” and their continuing absence. In the words of a 1994 American Rhodes Scholar: “I don’t see many women as professional role models, hardly any. Most women I have worked with don’t have children at all, or, if they do, they have one and they are not present in their lives.”

Earlier this year, we submitted a paper on this topic to be considered for presentation at the annual conference of the Academy of Management. Although the acceptance rate for the conference was very low, we were nevertheless disheartened when it was rejected, particularly given one of the reasons.

In the eyes of one reviewer, there wasn’t any “news” in our paper.  Our conclusions, the reviewer wrote, “confirm what we already know,”don’t tell us anything” about the current situation that women face in the workplace, and are reminiscent of those found in two seminal works on the topic: Men and Women of the Corporation by Rosabeth Moss Kanter, and The Managerial Woman by Margaret Hennig and Anne Jardim, both of which were published in 1977.

But what do we already know? Based on what women Rhodes Scholars said in their interviews, we know that women continue to lack career support networks.

We also know that when women expect to find career support networks and do not, they experience “second-generation gender bias,” a subtle form of discrimination that “disrupts the learning cycle at the heart of becoming a leader. When asked “what do you wish you had known at the beginning of your career?” one of our interviewees said, for example, that:

It would have been helpful to really know to what extent things still haven’t changed for women. I expected that we had gotten a lot further along the way. How I would have handled situations might have been different if I had understood what was going on behind the scenes. The blatant examples are something that you deal with but it’s the subtle things and understanding those that I would have worked through differently.

The “news” in our paper is therefore that for women things still haven’t changed in this regard.

Let us explain in more detail. Like Hennig and Jardim’s The Managerial Woman (1977), our study is based on interviews with high-achieving women. Among the 120 women we spoke with were lawyers, doctors, professors, management consultants and investment bankers. The most senior women were judges and justices, CEOs, senior government officials, and university presidents.  Most of them had or wanted to have spouses and children.

Hennig and Jardim’s study was based on interviews with 25 women who had by 1970 also reached top management positions. But their managerial women were born a hundred years ago (between 1910 and 1915). They were adolescents in the 1920s. They attended college in the 1930s.  Although they earned college degrees, they began their careers as secretaries. None of them married until their late thirties and those who did chose spouses at least a decade older than themselves. And none had biological children, although some became stepmothers to their older husbands’ progeny.

The women in our sample group were born in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, at least forty years after Hennig and Jardim’s group. In addition to undergraduate degrees, they earned graduate and professional degrees in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s. They entered and worked in the professions over the past 40 years.  Unlike their predecessors, they expected to marry and have children and most did.    

Yet it was this group of women – our contemporaries – who told us they had difficulty finding role models, mentors, and sponsors, particularly women who could show them how to combine work with a life outside of work. As a woman born in 1955 who had studied English as a Rhodes Scholar put it, “I wish I’d had a female mentor.” The women Hennig and Jardim studied in the 1960s didn’t have female mentors and neither did the women interviewed by the Rhodes Project this year and last year and a decade ago.

 Another of our respondents, a Rhodes Scholar elected from Jamaica in the 1990s and now a professor of law, spoke to us eloquently about what we can learn by realising that not even elite professional women have easy access to the career support networks that they want and need:

 If you are a Rhodes Scholar you are disproportionately likely to be at the top of your tree. So if as a woman you have a significant opportunity to be at the top of your tree and you are still having these issues, then it is a major concern.

Optimistic readers might say, yes, well, that may have been true for women beginning their careers as recently as the mid-1990s.  Things are quite different in 2014.

We would advise such readers to be cautious. On the first page of their 1977 book Hennig and Jardim wrote the following:

Many readers will begin this book saying, “Yes, yes, very interesting subject, but things have changed. Women are equal now and why belabour the point in a book? […] Surely today’s generation of women is far more capable of dealing with the problems that confronted women in the past.” 

Like the Rhodes Scholar who noted the extent to which things still haven’t changed for women, Hennig and Jardim also found that, “the problems are not so simple, nor at a deeper level have things changed all that much.” Clearly, the stasis they observed in 1977 has endured into the present day and, until organisations and family life are radically restructured, what women can do is become aware of this reality.

Susan Rudy is Director of the Rhodes Project.  A former Professor and Head of English at the University of Calgary, she is currently a visiting scholar at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford.

Kate Blackmon is, with Susan Rudy, co-author of a forthcoming Oxford University Press book on the gender gap in leadership, based on evidence from the Rhodes Project.  An Associate Professor in Operations Management at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, and a Fellow in Management Studies at Merton College, Oxford, she is currently the Senior Proctor at the University of Oxford.