For women looking to advance their careers, having a mentor can prove invaluable. From showing you the ropes to acting as a sounding board to introducing you to influencers, a mentor serves as a knowledgeable support system while you climb to new heights.
While successful mentoring relationships occur between people of opposite genders, same-sex pairings still dominate. In a mentorship study conducted by Olivet Nazarene University, 69% of women and 82% of men said their mentor was of the same gender.
This tendency may be due to affinity bias — the inclination of people to gravitate toward individuals who seem most like themselves. The danger with this bent is that men still significantly outnumber women in upper leadership, so junior female employees may have difficulty finding an interested mentor.
A growing concern among males about avoiding any relationship or behavior that might be construed as improper further complicates the matter of mentorship. Possibly due to fallout from the #MeToo movement, a 2019 workplace study conducted by LeanIn.org and SurveyMonkey revealed that 60% of male managers are uncomfortable participating in a common work activity with a woman, such as mentoring, working alone, or socializing together — a 32% jump from the previous year. Senior-level men now are 12 times more likely to hesitate to have one-on-one meetings with women, nine times more likely to hesitate to travel together for work, and six times more likely to hesitate to have work dinners.
Does this mean women should abandon hope of mentorship from a male they admire? No, such a blanket assumption could deprive both parties of a rewarding experience. Men often report gaining new perspectives by mentoring women and welcome the opportunity. Others simply enjoy helping any promising up-and-comer regardless of gender.
However, it does mean that women need to be aware of the current climate and what can be done to keep everyone comfortable. Here are some strategies for making a male-female mentorship relationship work:
Acknowledge the mentoring relationship
Being open about your mentorship relationship is the first step. Rumor mills start churning when people seem sneaky. Ignoring one another when around colleagues but being seen regularly coming out of an office together raises suspicions of something to hide.
Mentoring is an acceptable workplace activity that has been going on for decades. Freely let others know about the mentorship rather than subject the relationship to speculation and scrutiny.
"The most common challenge is the gossip that comes with cross-gender mentoring," says Satya Sidhartha Parija, co-founder and CMO of DoctorSpring. "There is also the initial aloofness of my mentee around other colleagues, which is a natural defensive reaction to veer away from being romantically linked. The first time I mentored an opposite gender, I was worried about it, but I learned that there is no need to worry about misinterpretation as long as we keep a clear line and let other people know about the mentoring."
Be deliberate about how and when you meet
Remain sensitive to appearances. Suggesting that you order lunch together at the office has a much more neutral aura than meeting up in the evening at a secluded restaurant. Respect that men want to leave no doubt that the relationship is entirely professional.
Wesley Exon, CEO of Best Value Schools, notes that there are two things he always does when mentoring someone of the opposite gender to ensure that nothing can be misinterpreted about the relationship: Meet in an open location and make a point to meet at the same time and place.
"You want to avoid mentoring sessions in your office with a closed door," Exon says. "Instead, choose an empty conference room and leave the door open or a corner of the lounge area if the space is large enough to allow for a private conversation. Also, however frequently or infrequently you meet, schedule those sessions for the same place and time every meeting. Keeping your sessions on a schedule is beneficial for several reasons and further goes to show that the mentor-mentee relationship is a professional one only."
Broaden communication options
Modern technology has expanded relationships beyond in-person exchanges. So be open to this route as a primary way of connecting.
"When I've mentored someone of the opposite gender, I've learned that offering guidance and advice virtually is just as valuable as doing so in person and skirts the issue of people misinterpreting the relationship," says Paul Sherman, CMO of Olive. "When it's not visible in the first place, people are less likely to pass judgment or make the mentee feel uncomfortable."
Look for group opportunities
Aware that mentoring arrangements benefit both senior and junior staff, many companies facilitate connections. Structures vary but may include designated spots in the office to gather, suggested topics to discuss, and multiple mentors and mentees meeting as a small group. Such organization-sponsored activities leave less room for improprieties — actual or speculated.
Seek out someone with a track record of diverse mentoring
Women looking for mentors may improve odds by considering individuals known to take on a variety of mentees. Not only can this strategy reduce the need to confront "boys' club" barriers, but it may also yield a more at-ease mentor who is especially committed to equal opportunity for all in the workplace.
Reversing roles: Women mentoring men
Any time people of unequal workplace power form a bond, questions can arise about each individual's intentions. Women who mentor men benefit from taking the tips above to heart to keep their interactions professional and less subject to exterior interpretation.
"In my opinion, it's important that you treat your mentees the same, regardless of their gender," says Upskillwise founder and CEO Catherine Cooke, who has mentored people of all genders. "There are definitely reasons you might want to consider treating a male mentee differently to a female, especially if you're concerned about how other people might interpret your relationship. But the best guard against rumors in this instance is consistency. No-one can accuse you of favoring someone because of their gender if they've been treated the same as everyone else."
And when it comes down to it, isn't that what every person seeking a mentor truly desires — a fair chance to develop their talent under the direction of someone who sees that potential and wants to invest in its growth?