When It Comes to Mentoring, Does Gender Matter?

While mentoring is beneficial for both men and women — individuals in mentoring relationships typically have increased promotions, salaries and job satisfaction — gender differences in mentor pairings can affect the mentoring relationship and its outcome.

Cross-gender mentorships may result in expanded thinking and perspective, as well as the opportunity to alter incorrect assumptions to understand the opposite sex’s point of view. Same-gender mentorships can inspire and reassure mentees that differences do not have to hinder career success, and mentors can serve as confidantes and role models in both personal and professional matters. Diversity executives and managers who want to provide their employees with the best mentoring experience should consider several things.

What does the mentee really want out of the mentoring relationship? Does he or she want to gain new skills or does the mentee want to focus on expanding his or her network? Does the mentee want to broaden his or her perspective by learning from someone different, or does he or she want to learn from someone who’s walked on a similar path?

Female mentees who want to gain access to powerful leaders, gain and increase their technical abilities and obtain high-visibility assignments may have more luck with a male mentor. However, women who want to be inspired and reassured may want to look for a female mentor who can serve as a role model both personally and professionally.

It’s been found that women paired with other women can establish trust and open communication more quickly than with men. Female mentors can also help female mentees navigate through tricky corporate politics in male-dominated industries via the “been there, done that” perspective.

Can the mentoring pair handle gossiping co-workers? If the mentee is a woman and her ideal mentor is a man, people may talk when they see them at the local watering hole after work or spending time together outside the typical work environment. Will that bother the mentoring pair? While they don’t have to explain themselves to others, it helps to be aware of misconceptions that may occur. Plus, a male mentor may be reluctant to take on a woman as a mentee in the first place because of these types of perceptions. He may be afraid that she (or other people in the organization) will misunderstand the nature of their relationship and that he could open himself up to possible lawsuits for sexual harassment or discrimination, or the perception that he cannot appreciate the female career perspective.

The cross-gender mentoring pair can overcome these obstacles by establishing very clear mentorship guidelines and working to steer clear of intimate or sexually-charged interactions. The female mentee should be aware that her future male mentor also may be hesitant to give honest feedback in fear of alienating her or hurting her feelings.

What is the mentee’s preferred mentoring style? How does the mentee want to communicate with his or her mentor? What mentoring topics does he or she want to focus on?

Some mentors will challenge the mentee and create tasks that can increase his or her ability to withstand stress and teach independence. Others will focus on integration, interdependence (rather than dependence or independence), and be collaborative more than competitive. The latter type of mentoring style, whether done by a woman or man, will probably work best for a mentee who typically responds better to praise than challenges, support over tests, and collaboration versus independence.

Another important thing to consider is if the mentee plans on talking to his or her mentor about work-life balance. While many men are sensitive to this topic and give great advice on how to handle the struggle between work and home, both men and women with children are generally more comfortable discussing alternative career paths and life-work balance with women than with male mentors.

According to research by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, male mentees who had female mentors found that they were more comfortable discussing work-life balance and gender issues than they were with male mentors. However, a male mentor may be able to share the male perspective in how to create the right perception among other male leaders when having to deal with family situations.

Diversity executives can facilitate the best mentor matching by encouraging prospective mentors and mentees to complete comprehensive mentoring profiles that clearly describe their objectives, communication styles and experience. Self-matching, where mentees choose mentors based on their profiles, is also encouraged. Technologically based mentoring programs have these types of features and make the matching process much more efficient.

The bottom line is that mentees who want to grow on their career paths understand that having different types of mentors throughout their careers can help them fulfill distinct needs to gain a wide variety of skills and tools. Beyond gender, the most successful mentoring pairings are the ones that have mentors invested in the mentee’s growth, no matter the sex.

Beth N. Carvin is president and CEO of Nobscot Corp., whose Mentor Scout division provides Web-based software for large and association mentoring programs. Kerrie Main is Nobscot’s communications manager. They can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.