Andrea Jung, chairman and CEO of Avon Products Inc, Ann Mulcahy, former chairman and CEO of Xerox Corp, Meg Whitman, former president and CEO of eBay Inc. The outstanding achievements of this incredible group have earned these women and others like them the highest ranks of corporate leadership.

Their notable accomplishments are inspiring and spark both awareness and hope that high-performing women can indeed win a seat at executive and board room tables. But the 2010 Catalyst Census: Fortune 500 Women Board Directors and the 2010 Catalyst Census: Fortune 500 Women Executive Officers and Top Earners, released Monday, tells a different story.  But it’s note hopeless:  Catalyst’s latest global study, Mentoring: Necessary but Insufficient for Advancement offers up a solution for this disappointing situation.

“The first look at our census numbers over the last years shows little progress for women as top earners,” says Ilene H. Lang, Catalyst president and chief executive officer. “The numbers haven’t leveled off anywhere near parity. That’s discouraging.”

As proof, women held 15.7% of board seats in 2010, only a 0.5% gain over the 15.2% in 2009.

In 2009 and 2010, more than 50% of companies had at least two women board directors, but more than 10% had no female representation. The percentage of women with three or more women board directors also remained flat.

In 2010, women held only 14.4% of executive officer positions, up from 13.5% in 2009 and only 7.6% of the top earning positions compared with 6.3% in 2009.

While individual companies are doing well, and that’s good news, says Lang, overall companies still have a long way to go. She recounts a public statement she made to Mulcahy at a recent Catalyst Annual Awards dinner: “You were first in so many things. We are well past the novelty and see that there’s  still a very long runway.”

Why is there such a long runway? Catalyst research shows that the career paths of successful women over the years have been pretty much the same as successful men.

Distinguishing Between Mentors, Sponsors

The distinction between mentorship and sponsorship will provide a “aha” moment for many companies.

According to Catalyst Director of Research Christine Silva, a  mentor offers career guidance and advice; a sponsor advocates for specific career opportunities.

“We busted all the myths about women: the aspiration myth and the parenthood myth and looked at baseline information about the career advancement of men and women,” says Silva.  She continues to point out that men and women with mentors were placed higher in their post-MBA first jobs, but men benefited more than women. Men with mentors were 93% more likely than men without mentors to start out at a middle management or above position; women with mentors increased their odds of being placed at mid-manager or above by only 56% over women who did not have mentors.

And men who had a mentor received $9,260 more in their first post-MBA job than women with a mentor.

What’s more, subsequently, men received more promotions than women and received higher salary increases. Each promotion earned men an extra 21% in compensation; for women, each promotion amounted to an extra 2%.

“This is a real wake-up call,” says Silva. “We thought the succession pipeline was much healthier because we’ve been talking about narrowing the gender gap for so long., but not enough progress has been made.”

Silva says that it’s not uncommon to hear a high-potential woman say she’s been “mentored to death.” Now, the study uncovers that mentoring alone will not accomplish the same result as sponsorship. Sponsorship is about advancement, about putting a high potential’s name on the table and garnering broad support from other executives and their peers on the board--about senior people saying, “This is the person I want to have on my team.”

Knowing People in High Places

A mentor or a sponsor may or may not be the same person and the key is the level of that person. High- potential men and women with senior-level mentors advanced further and earned more than those with less senior mentors. Overall, though, women’s compensation still lagged men whether or not their mentor was placed at the top. 

The study reveals that when left to their own devices, individuals choose to associate with others like themselves, (e.g., men with men and women with women). And though high-placed mentors continued to impact careers, the study found that when the mentoring relationship was formed, more men (62%) than women (52%) had a mentor at the CEO or senior executive level, largely because in most organizations there are more men in senior executive positions. This makes the pool of potential male mentors larger than the pool of potential women mentors.

What Companies Can Do  

Kerrie Peraino, chief diversity officer at American Express (AXP), says that companies must ensure their senior leadership supports succession planning and talent growth “organically.”

“Good leaders have an eye for talent, can cultivate talent and must look for people to sponsor.” Peraino says that talent review conversations can be robust: “You can literally map the advocacy that leaders have for their team members; you can also hear where there are gaps and develop strategy to fill those gaps.”

She says that companies must address situations in which a high performer with a strong rating is not getting advocacy, when no one is stepping up in the career conversation. “A good talent advocate provides pathways for that talent.” She adds that sometimes a human resources professional has to step in to provide help. 

What Can You Do?

Remember, too, that sponsorship must be earned. “You can ask for a mentor,” says Peraino.

And, you should ask. “Mentoring is one of the great pathways to sponsorship.”  

A mentor knows you as an individual, which is why, as Silva advises, you must let people know about your goals and aspirations.

A mentor also knows your work. “To earn sponsorship someone needs to see your work,” Peraino says. Pay attention to your current direct report relationship, how you deliver day-to-day and drive results.

“It’s not always natural for women to draw attention to their work. But realize that “it’s not enough to say, ‘I’m doing good work,’ and put your head down on your desk. High performance over time is what matters. There are no one-hit wonders.”

Supercharge of Sponsorship

In creating a roadmap to sponsorship the next big steps require accountability, investment and focus—largely on the part of corporations, and also for employees.

Says Lang, “There is no silver bullet to culture change, but sponsorship is supercharged. It might just get us to lift off.”