According to two leading academics, women not only find it harder to secure a senior mentor, they often get less out of the relationship than their male counterparts.
Corporate mentoring has enjoyed a notable resurgence over the last few years and more than 70 per cent of Fortune 500 firms now offer their own in-house initiatives – but could a lack of female leadership be making these professional relationships problematic?
Brad Johnson and David Smith are both professors in the Department of Leadership, Ethics, and Law at the United States Naval Academy – they claim female mentees are at a disadvantage because they often have limited same-sex role models to look up to with their organization.
“You have very few women in very senior positions – and those are the really likely and promising folks to be excellent mentors – so if they’re going to find a mentor who has some power and clout and experience, then often they’re going to have to turn to a man,” says Johnson.
It’s a problem that the duo says is compounded in male dominated industries – such as technology, finance and the military – which have a dearth of women in senior leadership positions.
“You’ll also find that, occasionally, senior women are reluctant to mentor junior women – that may be because, as one of the few senior women, they feel like they’re living in a fish bowl and everybody is watching or it may be because the culture is very competitive among women since it’s clear that very few women are going to get promoted,” says Johnson.
While it would be hoped mixed gender mentorships would be just as effective, the pair – who recently penned ‘Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women’ – say the set-up comes with no shortage of complications.
“Men may be more plentiful, you would think there is no shortage of men around, but sometimes guys are reluctant,” says Johnson, pointing to a psychological tendency known as cloning.
“Basically, it means they look for someone who was just like them when they were junior and try to create them in their own image – some of that is subconscious and guys aren’t even aware they’re doing it,” he explains.
Half the battle, it seems, is securing a mentorship in the first place but the problems don’t end there – according to research conducted by the pair, women who do find a mentor often reap less rewards in comparison to their male counterparts.
“Part of that is in the way we perceive our mentee and if gender biases come into play that can really hinder us,” says Smith. “We talked to men about this – about how they need to be self-aware and check their biases at the door once in a while – because when you get into a mentoring relationship you need to make sure you’re not hindering or undermining or limiting your mentee in a way that’s damaging for them.”
According to Johnson and Smith, senior male mentors are sometimes guilty of protecting their female mentees from harsh criticism or particularly challenging situations out of a misguided sense of chivalry.
“One of the things we found in our interviews with a number of women was this regret that their male mentors weren’t as tough with them or weren’t as honest with them in the way they were with their male mentees,” reveals Johnson.
“There’s something about men that leads them to withhold critical feedback and withhold challenge – part of it I think is this fear men have of creating discomfort in women – so they pull their punches and give her only positive feedback, nothing critical, but that really undermines her.”
Johnson and Smith say senior male mentors tend to stray towards undermining behaviour rather than empowering behaviour when they subconsciously slip into other well-worn relationship guides.
“Sometimes, having a professional relationship with a woman at work can be a little bit anxiety-inducing for men so to get over this anxiety they subconsciously fall back on these relationship scripts that we refer to as ‘man-scripts,’” says Smith.
'Man-scripts' refer to the roles men have long been conditioned to play in stereotypical male-to-female relationships – that is, the protective father, the chivalrous knight and even the suave seducer.
While these roles may seem out of place at work, Johnson and Smith say men often slip back into them when they find themselves in the uncharted territory of mentoring a talented young woman for the first time.
“As a father with a daughter, I know what the father-daughter relationship looks like, I have a wife so I know what a husband-wife relationship looks like but if I’ve never mentored a woman, I might not know what the male-to-female mentorship relationship looks like,” explains Smith.
While employing the father-daughter man-script might seem reasonably harmless on the surface, the pair say it can actually do more harm than good.
“A man who falls back on a father script with a woman at work believes in his heart of hearts that he’s being helpful and he’s being protective and shielding her,” says Johnson. “But the problem is he’s not allowing her to experience the same challenges and opportunities that a male mentee would get. He’s not allowing her to go out and make mistakes and fail and to build up that immunity as she learns to overcome challenges.”
Similarly, the chivalrous knight 'man-script' may appear positive on the surface – to some, at least – but it’s also got its own harmful side-effects.
“Some men always have to be rescuing women – thanks to the knight in shining armour thing that boys are socialized into very early – but again that runs the risk of sabotaging her autonomy and independence,” says Johnson.
While there are clearly risks associated with male to female mentoring, it can be hugely effective when done well and there’s an abundance of evidence which points to the positive impact it can have on mentors, mentees, and their organizations.
One 2008 study – Mentoring and coaching for professionals: A study of the research – lists over 20 categories positively impacted by professional mentoring, including workplace culture, recruitment and retention, confidence and well-being, communication and relationships, and professional and career development.
Clearly, with so many benefits to be had, it would be a mistake to limit mentorships to same-sex arrangements – so what’s the solution?
“I’m really a fan of talking about this transparently in the relationship,” says Johnson. “So if I’m mentoring somebody younger, I hope that I can develop a positive enough relationship with the woman I’m mentoring where I can just say; ‘Look, occasionally, you’re going to see me acting like a dad and I don’t intend to do that, when I do it, will you promise to bring it to my attention and tell me to stop it?’
“I hope we can laugh about it and it builds my self-awareness – I think it strengthens a relationship when we have that ability to give one another feedback so I want to have more transparency in our mentorship so none of that stuff gets swept under the carpet and we can talk about it.”
While 'man-scripts' may hinder some, Johnson and Smith are quick to stress that there are plenty of male leaders who can – and do – mentor women without any gender bias coming into play.
“People in charge, male and female, have got to reward and reinforce this – you have to draw attention to it,” says Johnson. “If you’ve got a guy who has been bold enough to mentor a lot of junior women and be very effective at that, have great boundaries but also be a real talent developer of junior women, you’ve got to call that person out in a positive way.
“I think when you publicly reinforce that sort of behaviour you get more of it in the organization, people are likely to pay attention and replicate it.”