A recent scientific study, motivated by the need for mentors for women studying STEM fields, took aim at what you're looking for in a great mentor. Along the way, it also discovered some surprising takeaways about avoiding mentors that won't help you be a rising star.

Dr. Nilanjana Dasgupta from the University of Massachusetts and her graduate student Tara Dennehy conducted a detailed, multi-year study on the effects of mentorship. Dasgupta's particular area of research focuses on diversity in the hiring, retention, and success of employees from underrepresented groups. In this study, 150 women studying engineering were assigned to have either no mentor, a male mentor, or a female mentor. Going into the study, they all had similar grades and academic aptitude. They met with mentors monthly for the same amount of time and rated how they felt about the mentors in an online monthly survey created by the researchers.

What happened then clarified the critical magic in the often mysterious role of mentorship.

"This study isn't just about women," says Harvard University's Radhika Nagpal. "It's about all the groups who have been historically and legally excluded, and are now slowly entering a world from which their members were barred. There's a famous saying: You can't be what you can't see."

It turns out subjective measures you're often taught to pay attention to, such as "liking your mentor," didn't matter that much.

In the study, liking the mentor didn't correlate with better outcomes for the mentee.

"Mentees perceived their mentors to be equally supportive regardless of mentor gender; they admired and felt connected to all mentors regardless of gender; and they met equally frequently regardless of mentor gender, all indicating that male and female mentors were equally conscientious," the study authors explain.

Even so, mentor-mentee gender matching created a striking difference when you looked at mentees who persevered in their field. The women who were assigned to women mentors, even though they got no more time and had no particular preference for same-sex mentoring, had more substantially more positive outcomes. "One hundred percent of women with female mentors remained in engineering majors at the end of year one, compared with 82 percent with male mentors, and 89 percent without mentors," the study says.

Dasgupta theorizes that, "Humans are social animals. Our ability alone doesn't determine whether we stay in or leave a field. It's ability mixed with that feeling that these are your people, this is where you belong. Absent that, even high-performers might not feel motivated to stay."

"The active ingredients are belonging and confidence," Dasgupta says.

It's not that having a woman mentoring women passed confidence along--what happened is the student's native, natural confidence was not eroded, the authors believe. So when you're looking for a mentor, look for someone qualified, whom you like, but who also is committed to encouraging you, including you, and modeling life for you in most aspects. Someone who helps you belong.

Pursuing a career in a tough corporate environment or a startup isn't unlike being a woman studying engineering.

The characteristics of a hostile environment can also apply to being the "only anything"--youngest person, oldest person, minority, immigrant, or outsider--in an already tight group. The study brought out that a hostile environment, even an unconsciously hostile one, puts a constant but subtle pressure on you to give up.

Recognize any of this in your day-to-day?

  • Subtly unfriendly or sometimes overtly hostile exclusions from social events
  • Nonverbal behavior that excludes you from conversations
  • The use of primarily masculine pronouns to refer to leaders
  • Prevalence of sexist jokes
  • An environment that erodes your belonging and self-efficacy, leading to burnout and attrition

This study has interesting implications when you're looking for the right mentor.

By picking someone who can relate to your professional path most directly, your own passion for your career stays fed and your ability to see yourself following in the mentor's footsteps is engaged. This may be the big secret to finding a great mentor.

What about the idea of convincing someone famous in the field to be your mentor?

That's likely to backfire, this study indicates, because comparing yourself to "the great one" could erode your confidence at a critical stage in your skill development and confidence building.

"Some research suggests that women reap more benefits from male mentors in professional settings because men, being advantaged, confer organizational legitimacy on their mentees and provide resources required for success," wrote the study's authors. "However, other studies argue that, for women who are a small minority in achievement settings, female mentors enhance social belonging in otherwise alienating environments."

Below, hear Dasgupta explain some of the evidence-based solutions that leaders, employers, and mentors need to keep in mind when they want to influence rising stars: