Mentor me: The Value of Male and Female Mentors

Business meeting.By Nneka Orji (London)

Mentoring, mentoring, mentoring. We are all constantly told about the positive impact a mentor can have on one’s career; from formal support and guidance, to very active yet informal promotion of a mentee’s achievements in the presence of senior colleagues. I, too, wrote about this very topic in a previous article, highlighting the benefits of mentoring in rebuilding the image of women at the workplace.

Based on the findings of numerous reports and studies, it is safe to say that mentors are invaluable, and we could all benefit from having someone in our corner. Yet according to a recent LinkedIn survey, 19 percent of professional women in the US stated they have never had a mentor. If the advantages of having a mentor are so clear, why are so many women missing out on the numerous opportunities that mentoring relationships offer?

Finding the Right Mentor

Over half of the LinkedIn survey respondents claim to have never found an appropriate mentor. This begs two questions:

1. Are the available mentors more “appropriate” for male mentees only?
2. Should women be more proactive or strategic in the way they seek mentors?

I believe the answer to the first question is a resounding no. For the purposes of this article, let us define “appropriate mentors” as someone we can learn from, and who can guide and encourage us through challenging times based on their experiences in similar situations. It could be argued that there are not enough “appropriate mentors” as a number of our senior colleagues are male, and the false assumption is that they would not have been in similar situations and will lack the female perspective. While there is an element of truth to this, it would be wrong to select mentors based on their gender.

A female mentor might be able to relate more to challenges of returning to the workplace after maternity leave, but a male mentor could be the best person to vocalise your achievements to your company’s key decision makers. Narrowing the number of “appropriate” mentors to just the female population can be very limiting. As women, we have access to just as many mentors as our male counterparts, so we must also seize the opportunities as they do.

The second question should therefore be the focus of discussions. How can women go about initiating and developing mentoring relationships more proactively?

Many organisations have very formal career counselling structures in place which aim to support individuals through performance management and reward processes. However, these counselling relationships aren’t necessarily conducive to broader personal and professional development.. The counsellor-counselee relationships are, in most cases, assigned and therefore do not always allow for the more open discussions which mentor-mentee relationships thrive on. In addition to formal structures, some firms have developed mentoring initiatives which provide an alternative channel for more junior colleagues to seek guidance and advice from peers and more senior colleagues.

Be Proactive in Your Own Career Advancement

You can’t always expect to be found by a mentor. Because mentors are not assigned but rather selected by the mentee, women can’t afford to be passive about finding a mentor. Mentors are not ‘nice-to-haves’ – they are critical to career advancement. This point is emphasised by the results of a 2005 study in the Australian Journal of Management, which showed that mentoring can be more effective in terms of career advancement for women compared to men.

We know that mentoring is beneficial and there are mentors (male and female) out there. So for those of you kicking off careers, or those who are very experienced and looking for inspiration, here are three definitive steps you can take to encourage mentor-mentee relationships:

1. Ask directly to be mentored: You have identified someone you feel would be the ideal mentor to support your development and advance your career, but you’re not sure how to approach them about mentoring. Sometimes the relationship develops naturally after some time, however you might have met said person for a few minutes in a networking event or through an acquaintance, and you might be unsure if you will have another opportunity to develop a mentoring relationship. The solution to this challenge is simple…ask him or her to be your mentor. Take their business card or contact details and initiate the mentoring relationship. If you don’t, no one will do it for you.

2. Offer to be a mentor: The common presumption is that we have to achieve a certain milestone before we are in a position to mentor. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Everyone should aspire to be a mentor. The beauty of mentoring is that you continue to learn from mentees as well as share your experiences. 67% of the LinkedIn study respondents said they had never been asked to be a mentor. But why wait to be asked? This is another opportunity missed. Based on the Australian Journal of Management study, females are more influential than males in supporting (and hindering) the advancement of others. Women quite clearly have a significant role to play as mentors.

3. Encourage cross-gender mentoring: You can learn a lot from both male and female mentors and there is no need to limit yourself to just one mentor. Women should look to mentor and be mentored by male colleagues or acquaintances. A 2009 Catalyst study found that in men with exclusively male mentors, only 42% had a high awareness of gender bias. However, that number jumped to 65% when the male had a mentor of both genders. So not only does it impact the individuals in the mentoring relationship, cross-gender mentoring also supports the ‘paying it forward’ concept. Due to some societal misconceptions, cross-gender mentoring relationships can be more challenging to initiate and nurture. However there are initiatives that companies can take to encourage mentoring across genders and across races (a separate issue in itself!), such as the FTSE 100 Cross-Company Mentoring Programmes.

These three steps aren’t always easy to take, but the result could have a major impact on your career.

Speaking from Experience

As a mentor through organisations such as the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, and also as a mentor to male mentees of the Amos Bursary and Social Mobility Foundation, I have already realised the benefits of mentoring and continue to develop my soft skills.

Likewise, I benefit from mentors . From a career perspective, I have a female mentor and a couple of male mentors who provide the additional support I need to navigate my professional career. While my female mentor can advise me on gender biases based on her personal experiences, my male mentors are able to encourage me to take those career changing steps which might not come so naturally to women. Personally, I have found that both male and female perspectives are critical to my success. It’s clear to see that irrespective of gender, a mentor can notably influence one’s career.