Insights / Research BriefApr 04, 2023

Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Empowering Female Entrepreneurs through Female Mentors

Frank Germann, Stephen J. Anderson, Pradeep Chintagunta, Naufel Vilcassim
Female entrepreneurs ran more successful firms after receiving mentorship from women, compared to a control group that received no mentorship and female entrepreneurs who were mentored by men.

Mentorship is a common tool for increasing entrepreneurs’ likelihood of success as well as for closing gender gaps, particularly in developing countries where the share of owner-entrepreneurs is greater and gender gaps are more pronounced. This paper studies the role of gender matching in entrepreneurship, asking whether mentorship is more effective at improving female entrepreneurs’ odds of success when mentors are female as well.

Examples of Virtual Entrepreneur – Mentor Meetings

The authors conducted a randomized controlled trial in which they divided 930 Ugandan entrepreneurs into a treatment group and a control group. Next, members of the treatment group were also randomly assigned a mentor from whom they received up to six months of virtual business support. Two years later, the authors collected data on sales and profits at the entrepreneurs’ businesses, revealing the following:

  • Female entrepreneurs benefited more from female mentorship than they did from male mentorship. Female entrepreneurs mentored by females saw their firm sales increase by 34% and profits by 29%, on average, compared to the control group. By contrast, female entrepreneurs guided by male mentors did not significantly improve their performance.
  • Mentor gender did not matter for male entrepreneurs – there was no significant difference in the outcomes of those matched with a male mentor versus a female mentor.

What drives these effects? The authors conducted follow up analysis using written meeting summaries, data on customer relations, and information about entrepreneurs’ levels of aspiration. They found the following:

  • Female mentors used significantly more relational language when describing their interactions with female entrepreneurs, suggesting that female mentors may have formed closer bonds with female entrepreneurs.  
  • Female entrepreneurs who were matched with female mentors seemed to significantly improve their relationships with customers, based on measures including closeness of engagement, follow-up communication incidence and transaction volume. These improvements in customer relations appear to largely explain the strong positive effects of female mentorship on women.
  • Female entrepreneurs who reported higher aspiration levels before receiving mentorship tended to benefit significantly more from female mentors, suggesting that aspirational female entrepreneurs may be better targets for training programs aimed at driving economic growth when such programs are delivered by females.

This paper makes the case for same-gender mentorship as a tool for helping to overcome the pervasive barriers to business success faced by female entrepreneurs in developing economies. More broadly, the approach holds promise across the many contexts in which women’s advancement is stymied by “glass ceilings,” though future research is needed to determine where it will be most effective.