It is not so difficult to imagine that who-you-know in the workplace is almost as effective as (and in some cases even more so than) what-you-know. What does deliver a jolt is the fact that mentors at the same level within an organization may actually herald different levels of career benefit to male and female employees having equal potential.

A report from leading non-profit member organization Catalyst (based on a 2008-online survey of more than 4,000 MBA alumni who graduated between 1996 and 2007 from top schools in Asia, Canada, Europe, and the United States) has revealed that men actually reap higher benefits from mentoring in their careers than women of equal potential.

Ironically, however, more women than men have had active mentoring relationships at some point of time or the other throughout their careers. According to the report, titled Mentoring:Necessary But Insufficient for Advancement, there were more men than women who had never had a mentor in the workplace (24% men compared to 17%% women).

Men, however, typically choose a mentor at a higher level in the organization. 62 percent men had a mentor at the CEO or senior executive level as compared to 52% women. This is partly because men are more likely to choose one among themselves as mentor. Since in most organizations more men than women occupy senior executive positions, this boils down to men choosing a mentor at the top of the organizational hierarchy more often than women.

The position of the mentor is particularly important as both men and women with mentors at senior levels were found to advance more than those with mentors at comparatively lower positions.

Having a mentor also does affect the first placement and salary, but there too, the payoff is greater for men than women. 29% of men with a mentor landed a first position at the mid managerial level or above, whereas for women, the corresponding percentage was just 14.

The report throws up another startling fact in that although women with senior-level mentors got promoted at the same rate as men (having similar mentors), these promotions entailed greater raises for men than for women. For men, each promotion in their 2008 job amounted to an extra 21% in compensation, as against a meagre corresponding 2% for women, perpetuating the already existing salary differentials they started out with at the first job.

A few readjustments in mentoring programs for women - typically, finding someone highly placed in the organization who will advocate for her when it comes to promotions or other development opportunities - may enable her to take greater strides towards professional development and career advance. The salary gap, however, is unlikely to be bridged till they can start at par.