Crossing the Gender Line: Why Mentor Men?

Business woman with hands folded smilingBy Jacey Fortin (New York City)

Can senior women promote workplace equality by proactively mentoring junior men?

It’s about big-picture, long-term benefits. A man in an entry-level position can learn much from a female superior, and it goes far beyond professional tips, insights or even sponsorship. It’s about appreciating the value of diversity and learning to respect a different point of view.

Just 42 percent of men with exclusively male mentors have a high awareness of gender bias, according to a 2009 study by Catalyst. But of men with mentors of both genders, a full 65 percent have a high awareness of gender bias. And those with a high awareness are much more likely to champion women’s equality during their career, which is good for everyone. It seems that female mentorship can go a long way toward changing attitudes about workplace inequality.

Changing Culture

Ida Abbott has been studying these issues for decades. She’s the president of Ida Abbott Consulting and the co-founder and director of the Hastings Leadership Academy for Women at UC Hastings. She is also a published author on leadership and mentoring issues; her latest work is Women on Top—The Woman’s Guide to Leadership and Power in Law Firms.

“I’ve mentored a lot of men,” she said. “I’m an old-timer in the field of professional development, which has been growing quickly over the last 20 years. It just so happens that a lot of the people coming on board lately have been male. I’m always interested in helping people learn and develop their skills; for me, it’s a part of my work.”

In her experience, the benefits of women mentoring men are twofold. Males can find unexpected lessons in cross-gender mentoring relationships. “You want men to understand women—how they lead, what they have to teach, what kinds of experiences they’ve had, what hurdles they’ve faced,” Abbott said. “Having a woman mentor can make men more sensitive to the issues that women have to deal with.”

And women benefit by cultivating a more inclusive environment. “Ideally, men would become more sensitive to the issues that women have to deal with, and that attitude would then transfer to their peers. What you’re doing is changing the culture so that women are seen for the value they bring to leadership roles.”

What about the Women?

But some challenges stand in the way of setting up these mentoring relationships. For one, there simply aren’t many females at higher levels. By even the most optimistic estimates, women fill just about quarter of the senior professional positions in the United States. So when a junior male looks to upper-level management for mentorship, he’ll find mostly men.

“There are so few women available to be mentors,” explained Abbott. “Those who do have that standing are often under a lot of pressure at work, and they may prefer to mentor females in order to help other women move up. That’s natural, but I think it’s important to recognize that by helping both men and women, you create an environment where people are learning from each other and supporting each other all around.”

Another challenge has to do with overcoming perceptions. “People tend to ask for female mentors when they want advice about work-life balance, and that’s grounded in a stereotype,” notes Abbott. “The fact is there may be many women who are more powerful than you know. There may be women who could give you a visible work assignment, put you in touch with a client or support you as you climb the career ladder. People have all kinds of power, and men need to realize that having a woman mentor can be very useful.”

In other words, the very issues that may prevent women from mentoring men—gender bias and a lack of female leadership—are the same issues that can be solved over the long term if we actively pursue these types of professional relationships. It’s a worthwhile endeavor for men, women and the businesses they work for.

“Women have a tremendous amount of talent in many of the same areas as men,” explained Abbott, “but also in many different areas. Making that talent available broadly to the entire workforce is in everyone’s best interest.”