Often, men help female executives get to the top

If there is a woman behind every successful man, it may be as true that there is a man behind most every successful woman.

Sorry, husbands. He's probably not you, but rather a male executive who champions women to the top.

When USA TODAY asked female CEOs, chairs and company founders to identify the one mentor who had the most influence on their careers, 33 of the 34 who responded identified a man.

These female executives included Fortune 500 CEOs Andrea Jung of Avon Products and Laura Sen of BJ's Wholesale Club. Jung says men once dominated Avon's leadership, but the playing field was leveled by James Preston, Avon's CEO the previous decade. Jung remembers when she first interviewed for a job with Avon, Preston had a plaque behind his desk called "The Evolution of Leadership." It had four footprints: an ape, a barefoot man, a wingtip shoe and, finally, a high-heeled shoe.

Preston says he thought it was odd that the company was led by men even though its customers and sales force were women. So he set out to change that when he rose to senior management. It was never out of social responsibility, but out of self-interest, Preston says. And he credits Jung and other women for digging the company out of its 1980s slump.

"I'm a first-generation American, and everyone has a right to be given an opportunity to do their best," Preston says.

One reason the path to success for some women almost always leads through men may be the sheer matter of numbers: There are only 29 Fortune 1,000 companies with a female CEO and not enough other women in very high-ranking positions to do the mentoring.

So what do these mentors have in common besides standing on the other side of the gender divide? One thread appears to be that they often have a daughter. Others have had a strong female influence in their lives. Female CEOs say their male mentors believed in them enough to push them beyond their comfort zones. The best mentors won't waste their time on women unless they see a strong desire for success, says Laura Wellington, CEO of The Giddy Gander Co.

The best male mentor won't be the guy who is nicest to you in the office, but the one who is wise enough to know that there is no one more loyal than the women he champions, says Sen, who names as her key mentor BJ's Chairman Herb Zarkin.

"Early on, I recognized that women were not interested in the games that men play, the politics or the sports analogies that were endemic in the male workplace," says Zarkin. "Women were interested in getting the job done."

"Men have the power to make women great," says Laura Herring, chairwoman of human resources consultants Impact Group. Juliet Huck, founder of a communications consulting firm, says her key mentor, Dan Winter, had "more confidence in my talent than I did."

Some women don't agree

Of course, many women may flinch at statements that give any one person credit for their success — whether it is a man or not. And sometimes older men will mentor younger women for the wrong reasons. "Shocking, I know," deadpans Andréa White-Kjoss, CEO at Mobis Transportation/Bikestation, a small company with 20 employees that designs, builds and manages facilities that encourage cycling. Even so, "I have found female champions to be rare," says White-Kjoss, who says men have been her key mentors, and she can think of only one woman over 15 years whom she would include on any list of mentors.

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.

Mentors can be game-changers

Marianne Brown, CEO of Omgeo, a securities trading solutions firm, remembers when John Hogan, now president of Broadridge, coached her for her first presentation at a board meeting a decade ago.

"Over a grueling series of sessions, John put me through my paces, and the prep paid off. I walked into that meeting confident, and I walked out very proud. That experience was a game-changer for me," Brown says.

"If a woman wants advice from someone who has been there, done that, then it pretty much has to be a man," says Deborah Ellinger, president of Restoration Hardware, a home furniture company with 100 stores in North America.

Ellinger's key mentor is Marshall Carter, a 69-year-old former Marine and Vietnam War veteran and recipient of the Navy Cross, the highest medal awarded by the Navy and Marine Corps. He's been CEO of State Street and is now chairman of the New York Stock Exchange Group and deputy chairman of parent company NYSE Euronext. By the time he was a rising executive at Chase Manhattan Bank in the early 1980s, nine of the 12 vice presidents reporting to him were women.

Carter has two children including a daughter, now 43, but he says he was more influenced by his wife, who persuaded him to introduce flexible schedules and lactation stations at State Street in the 1990s.

Carter believes his attitude was also shaped by his return from two combat tours in Vietnam as an officer. He had a master's degree in operations research and systems analysis but was rejected by 85 companies because, he says, of the public's distaste for veterans at the time.

"He understands what it means to be an outsider," Ellinger says.

TELL US: Identify the one mentor who most influenced your success. Did your mentor's gender make a difference to you?