Catalyst, an organization whose mission is to expand opportunities for women in business, released a study of male mentors to women in May called "Engaging Men in Gender Initiatives: What Change Agents Need to Know." Men who impeded or who were indifferent to the progress of women viewed the workplace as a zero-sum game where promotions of women came at the expense of men. Catalyst found that if there is one thing that stands out among male champions of women, it is a strong sense of fairness.
Daughters make a difference
But equally telling may be the gender of the children of male executives. Eighty-three percent of the men Catalyst identified as champions had at least one daughter. When USA TODAY asked top corporate women if the key male mentor who helped them most had a daughter, 70% said yes.
Little research has been done on how fatherhood shapes workplace attitudes, but Yale economics professor Ebonya Washington studied congressional voting records from 1991-2004 and found that congressmen with daughters were more likely to support such issues as pay equity. Of the 40 women who were appointed by U.S. presidents to Cabinet posts, 26 were appointed by the last three presidents — all of whom have daughters and no sons.
Preston and Zarkin, mentors to female CEOs in the Fortune 500, both have daughters.
"When they were small, I knew their world was going to be very different from the world I grew up in where men took care of women," says Zarkin, who emphasized education to his daughters, one now an executive, the other a surgeon. "I wanted them to have a great self-image. I always told them they were great."
"Having daughters, seeing firsthand their struggles, fears and dreams, it makes it easier to relate to other women and their struggles, fears and dreams," says Greg Palmer, who has three daughters in their 20s and who was identified as the key mentor for Jill Ater, founder of an 11-state employment-placement company named 10 til 2.
But women are still rare at the very top. "Male champions are critical for women who are playing in the boys clubs," says Nina DiSesa, chair of McCann Erickson New York, the flagship office of the McCann Erickson advertising agency.
Karyl Innis, CEO of her own career consulting firm in Dallas, was hired by Motorola as manager of supervisory development in the late 1970s. Her mentor, Ed Miner, intentionally submitted her name to human resources as Karl instead of Karyl. This early deceptionresulted in a starting salary that was 42% higher, Innis says.
USA TODAY didn't survey female CEOs about mothers, but executives Fran Lessans of Passport Health, Sylvia Lafair of Creative Energy Options, Herring of Impact Group and Kristi Wetherington of Capital Institutional Services all volunteered that mothers of mentors are more important than daughters in shaping the attitudes of champions.
Not everyone thinks male mentors of women are commonplace. Jacqueline Corbelli, CEO of BrightLine iTV, says they are rare, and Mom Central CEO Stacy DeBroff says they are exceptionally rare. But other women say they are widespread. Nell Merlino, CEO of Count Me In for Women's Economic Independence, says she discovered that male champions were common after she started Take Your Daughter to Work Day.
"The number of male champions increases daily as talented women reward them for this investment," says Karen Watts, CEO of Corefino, a Sunnyvale, Calif., company that outsources accounting services.