By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

“All mentorship is not equal,” said Debbie Soon, Vice President of Executive Leadership Initiatives at Catalyst. Soon said she was shocked by the huge discrepancies between men and women, which were revealed by a report released today by the organization. According to the report, men benefit significantly more from mentoring than women do.

How much more? $9,260.

Once again: $9,260. That’s how much more men with mentors make in their first post-MBA job than women who also have mentors. Men get a considerably higher promotional increase as well, compared to women.

Why the discrepancy? According to Soon, it comes down to quality. “Women seek mentors, but men seek sponsors,” she said. Men tend to have mentors who are higher ranking, higher paid, and have more influence in the organization – in other words, sponsors, who are willing to spend their own personal political capital to advocate on their behalf.

“Mentorship is not sufficient,” said Soon. “Sponsorship closes the gap.”

Where are the Female Sponsors?

The report, “Mentoring: Necessary but Insufficient for Advancement,” emphasized the importance of sponsorship. It is the based on the results of an online study conducted in 2008, on more than 4,000 MBA alumni who graduated between 1996 and 2007 from schools across Asia, Canada, Europe, and the United States.

The report shows that mentoring pays off for men, significantly more than it does for women. Men with a mentor were paid $6,726 more than men without one in their first post-MBA job. On the other hand, women with a mentor were paid only $661 more than women without. Why are mentors so much more valuable for men? And while they may be providing value advice on other issues – work/life, etc – they simply aren’t cutting it for women when it comes to the paycheck.

According to Soon, the issue is about quality. Men’s mentors just tend to be more valuable in terms of compensation and promotion – they tend to serve as a sponsor.

Everyone needs someone to advocate on their behalf, explained Soon. “Someone saying ‘she’s the one who should have this job.’” An effective sponsor has influence over key decisions and a spot in the informal power network behind the scenes.

Additionally, the issue may also be related to role model demographics. There simply aren’t that many women at the top in most companies who can serve as inspiration – or in that sponsorship role for the women climbing the ladder behind them.

In fact, today Catalyst also released a gender census of the Fortune 500, tallying the number of women in senior executive roles (14.4%), company top earners (7.6%), and board seats (15.7%) at America’s leading companies. And the numbers, while still startlingly low, haven’t shifted significantly in the past year.

Rachel Soares, Senior Associate in Research at Catalyst, said, “I was shocked that Corporate America is still paralyzed by the gender leadership gap.”

This news is nothing new, and, Soares believes, senior female business leaders could make a critical difference as companies across the globe are struggling to pull themselves out of the economic slowdown. “Women are such an important part of the economy,” she said. “‘No gains’ is unacceptable. Innovation and leadership are needed more than ever.”

She continued, “With global competition escalating every day, Corporate America cannot afford to trail other countries [in improving gender balance]. Women are our single most underutilized resource, and lack of access to key relationships is preventing them from reaching the top.”

Companies can run as many mentoring programs as they want, but until they implement accountability metrics alongside them, Soares warned, we won’t see gender parity in terms of compensation, promotion, or even a shift in the numbers of women at the top.

No More Excuses

Soon agreed. She said, “Companies shouldn’t be lulled by having a mentoring program. Without accountability, it is not as effective.” That means tying mentors’ incentives or bonuses to the success of mentees. “Make sponsorship a formal program,” she said. “Set goals.” Accountability isn’t just a way to measure the success of mentees – it’s also a way to measure the success of the mentoring program as a whole, to ensure the company’s investment was worth it.

The study found that the gap existed whether the mentor was assigned by the workplace, or whether he or she was sought out through a more informal channel. This is one indicator that there’s an institutional bias at stake. “Men without mentors still end up making approximately $2,500 more than women with mentors,” Soon said.

“Mentorship and sponsorship begins to close the gap, but there’s something else in the water. There are other hurdles that women face that men don’t.”

Women can help themselves, Soon said, by aiming high when seeking out a mentor or a sponsor – seek out someone with enough influence and connections to make a difference in your career. “Your sponsor can introduce you to more people who can help you,” she explained. She also encouraged women to be up-front about what they are looking to get out of the relationship. “Be clear about your expectations.”

She also said women often shy away from male mentor or sponsor relationships, and this can be detrimental. It’s not that men make better mentors than women, but they are often more influential (for the time being at least). “The harsh truth is that, more often than not, they are occupying the seats with more leverage and authority.”

In recent years we’ve seen a number of reports highlighting the value of women in leadership – having more diverse voices in the boardroom and c-suite is just good business. Companies ignore this at their own peril.

“I think the point is that this isn’t just about women,” Soares said. “This is about women and business, and that can’t be underscored enough.”