First published in the Australian Financial Review on 10 October 2013.

MOST professional women have either a role model, a mentor or a sponsor, and many of those who don’t wish they did.

That is the key finding of a survey by Sweeney Research of 1031 women with annual income of at least $65,000. About 41 per cent of those surveyed had a role model either inside or outside their company, and the same percentage had a mentor.

Another 13 per cent said they had a sponsor, defined as someone within the workplace who has decision-making authority, and the power to harness a person’s skills and help them move up the ladder.

Of the 40 per cent of women who said they did not have such support, 94 per cent said they wished they did.

The survey was released to coincide with the announcement of finalists for The Australian Financial Review and Westpac Group 100 Women of Influence awards.

Marlene Kanga, national president of Engineers Australia and director of iOmniscient, was one of 500 entrants and was selected as a finalist in the category of innovation.

As a woman with a background in oil and gas, she says the role of mentors is crucial in technology and engineering.

Because there are still relatively few women there, many of the mentors will have to be men. “I think men have a large part to play,” Dr Kanga said.

She says she has tried to mentor other women and, by the same token, is still looking for help herself.

“You are never too old to be mentored,” she said. But Dr Kanga said mentoring is not the whole story and now that she is in a senior position she has tried to get rid of barriers to women progressing to better jobs

The Sweeney survey also shows that having a mentor, role model or sponsor does not solve all the challenges professionals face. At best, mentoring makes only a modest difference and, in some areas, no difference at all.

Encouragingly, only 45 per cent of women with mentors or sponsors complained about a lack of recognition from management, compared with 53 per cent for those without support.

Asked whether they had been overlooked for a job, 35 per cent of women without support said “yes” while for women with support it was 29 per cent.

But in other areas support does not seem to help as much. About 27 per cent of women with support had experienced challenges getting the same pay as men in similar roles, about the same as women without support, on 25 per cent. And 35 per cent of women with a mentor or sponsor said they found it a challenge being promoted into leadership roles while it was only 27 per cent for other women. Interestingly, 56 per cent of women see a current or previous manager as a role model.

The limits of mentoring were also highlighted by a report by consultancy Bain & Co this year, which found that “increasing female representation at the top is the one action that will have the greatest impact and improve female representation at all levels”.

Genevieve Nelson , executive director of the Kokoda Track Foundation, which runs aid and educational programs in Papua New Guinea, was ­nominated in the global category.

Dr Nelson said she has been influenced by many of the women in the areas where she worked who had devoted years to teaching.

She needed help in her career because she had first taken on the job at only 21. “It was more an age than a ­gender thing,” Dr Nelson said.

The 100 finalists will attend a gala dinner in Sydney on October 17, where Westpac chief executive Gail Kelly and Fairfax Media chief executive Greg Hywood will announce the 10 category winners and overall 2013 Woman of Influence.