Does Gender Matter When it Comes to Your Mentor?

iStock_000010249946XSmallBy Robin Madell (San Francisco)

One of the most basic questions in the mentor-selection process is whether to be mentored by a man or a woman. When it comes to mentoring women, should the gender of mentor candidates be a consideration? The answer is not straightforward. While some experts and execs believe male mentors can offer the best resources to women, others feel that female mentors can offer better understanding of specific issues that mentees need to know. Still others feel that gender should not be a deciding factor for mentorship.

“I don’t think gender and age really matter,” says Christina Inge, who works in the technology industry. “I’ve had mentors in different fields of different genders. It’s about shared values more than anything.” Jessica Albon, who works with financial advisors, agrees: “I haven’t found gender to matter at all,” says Albon. “What’s mattered to me is someone’s perspective—how able are they to see the big picture? How able are they to put themselves in my shoes and extrapolate?”

On the other hand, Roy Cohen, author of The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide, says that gender is a real issue. “It is a practical matter,” says Cohen. “There are just not enough women in leadership positions, and like any community not all of them want to, or can, be mentors. For those who do, they tend to be burdened by requests from many, many women—too many. So that leaves men to pick up the slack.” Cohen notes that this has advantages as well, because the right men can open doors and influence other men. “Men tend to have historical relationships to tap that may be less available to their female colleagues—like membership in the old boy’s club.”

Assess Your Goals

Nancy R. Wilsker, partner at Hinckley, Allen & Snyder LLP, suggests that the gender question comes down to whether people think it’s better to have a mentor who is a woman (“she looks like me”) or a man (“he’s powerful”). Wilsker agrees that for practical reasons based on mentor availability, women may end up more often than not with male mentors.

“I have high hopes that over time (perhaps in my great granddaughters’ lives, assuming I have such progeny one day), there will be enough powerful women and enough supportive men that gender will not be relevant in the selection of a sponsor or mentor,” says Wilsker. “Today, women probably default to sponsors and mentors who are men because eligible women are few and far between, not because gender itself is a qualification.”

If you’re able to do so, finding a way to work with a female mentors can offer specific advantages, however. As a younger woman, third-year law student Ciara Vesey of Drake University Law School says she has found having a female mentor to be helpful in the legal field. “Gender of my mentor has been an important quality given the pretty hostile environment of sports and entertainment law, and just the dominance of males in the legal field in general,” says Vesey. “It has been helpful to get tips from a female attorney on things such as being taken seriously during a negotiation.”

Elle Kaplan, CEO and founding partner at Lexion Capital Management LLC, relies on one of the first women to be made partner at Goldman Sachs as her mentor: Ann Kaplan (no relation). “Ann Kaplan is a living legend for women on Wall Street,” says Elle Kaplan. “As a woman, Ann just ‘gets’ so many things because she is also a woman. I often feel like she is an older sister, fairy godmother, and icon rolled into one.”

The bottom line? Think about your goals for a mentoring relationship. If your company’s management structure is male-dominated and you need access to the “boy’s club,” a male mentor might make more sense, at least initially. But if you’re hoping to be advised by someone who has gone before you in your shoes and experienced similar challenges firsthand, you might prefer a female mentor.

Multiple Mentors

Beverly L. Weise, who spent 8 years as executive director of Interlaw, an international association of law firms, exemplifies both sides of the coin, having reaped the benefits of both male and female mentors in different situations. “I believe the qualities you look for in a mentor depend on what it is you want to be mentored in,” says Weise.

When Weise was the only female manager in a group of 10 male managers, she had a male mentor who was part of that group. “He would ‘interpret’ and at times ‘translate’ the male-dominated culture in which I was working. At times, it did feel like a foreign language and culture. He coached me on ways of gaining more influence with that group without losing myself or what I was trying to accomplish. In that situation, having a supportive, well-respected male was the kind of mentor I needed.”

In another instance, Weise created regional women lawyers’ mentoring groups to help senior lawyers share best practices in business development. In this circumstance, Weise says it was clear that only women could mentor one another in some of the unique challenges women face in developing business.

“For example, as an alternative to entertaining a potential client for a business dinner and having it misconstrued as wanting a personal (not professional) relationship, women mentored one another in alternative strategies, like setting up business breakfasts, or inviting an associate along for dinner,” explains Weise.

Since male and female mentors bring different things to the table, if it’s possible, try to have one of each. Lana Burkhardt, who has spent 20 years in the financial services industry, believes that women must have both a male and female mentor, since each bring different qualities to mentorship. “My experience has taught me that younger women in this field must identify a well-respected male mentor who has successfully built his career within the organization, and a female mentor of a similar level of expertise,” says Burkhardt. “Each mentor will provide value on very different aspects of building a career in the industry.”

2 Responses

  1. Amy Peterson

    I don’t think the gender of a mentor is important. As in the article, shared values is more important. There are many women’s groups where questions can be asked on balancing work and family, gender questions, branding, etc. As women become more confident that they can compete in any discipline working with successful people will be what matters most. True, I have had few female mentors in my field but I’m not sure I would have chosen any of them. The best mentors were those that were the best in their fields and generous to share that knowledge with any and all. I could call and ask all the questions I had, get names and direction where to learn more, talk about my future goals. etc. One was so good that he reminded me where my values were and what would make me happy. He told me I wouldn’t be happy taking a traveling job or moving my family from relatives and friends. I’ve never regretted following my heart and being reminded helped ground me. I’ve had my successes staying put and keeping my family and goals balanced. I am also able to be that kind of mentor to many young men and women.