We’re used to seeing men as mentors. We’re used to seeing them mentor other men, and we’re also getting used to seeing them mentor junior women. As more women enter positions of leadership, we’re also seeing a growing number of senior women mentoring other women.
But there’s a mentor-mentee relationship we’re not as familiar with: senior women mentoring junior men.
“To be honest, most of the research looks into men being mentors to women and whether this is effective,” says Andromachi Athanasopoulou, associate professor in organizational behavior at Queen Mary University of London. “Far less research has looked at the opposite — a woman mentoring a man — because more men are in the leadership positions, so they are more likely to be mentors.”
But there’s something about these relationships that experts say is different, especially for the man being mentored.
When Lori Taylor, a vice president in the risk division at Goldman Sachs, returned to work after a six-year break to raise her children, she noticed both female and male employees approaching her for advice on balancing work and home responsibilities.
“I have some men who work for me who have long hours and commutes, and I get them to think about ‘Do you want to work from home one day a week?’” she says. “We talk a lot about flexibility and the options you can create for yourself.”
Seeing women as the mentors
Part of the reason we don’t see these relationships as much is because female leaders are still relatively rare. A recent study from McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.org shows that women aren’t promoted to management as quickly as their male colleagues are. As a result, there are fewer opportunities for women to mentor junior employees of any gender.
But research also shows that because men and women are socialized differently — men to be more aggressive and assertive, women to be more submissive and nurturing — they approach mentor-mentee relationships from entirely different perspectives.
Women are “allowed” to ask more questions about feelings, says Valerie Schwiebert, professor of counseling at Western Carolina University and author of “Mentoring: Creating Connected Empowered Relationships.”
“Men, when they do their mentoring, it’s very much focused on ‘This is how we climb the ladder. These are the steps. Here’s who you should know. Here’s what you do,’” Schwiebert says. “There’s not a lot of focus on how you feel about that, on ‘What do you need? What’s important to you?’”
Women are also more likely to care about chemistry in these relationships, Athanasopoulou says. Men will mentor a junior employee with less thought about rapport or the bond. Meanwhile, women will spend more time trying to establish that trust on the front end of the relationship.
“When women speak about mentoring another person, they tend to look at mentoring as a two-way process,” she says. Men, she says, are more likely to see it as a transaction than a relationship.
Seeing men as the mentees
The messages we get about gender don’t just shape how we mentor, Schwiebert says. They also change how we receive mentorship.
While women have been socialized to nurture and “mother” in the workplace, men have been socialized to value promotions and other symbols of success.
“There’s this expectation you should want to climb the ladder as far as you can get,” Schwiebert says. “It’s a vulnerable place for [men] to talk about things like ‘Maybe I don’t want to make a lot of money. Maybe I want to stay here.’”
Schwiebert points to one example from her research, where a male school counselor was offered a promotion to an administrative position, one that would put him on track to one day being a principal or superintendent. He loved his current job, but he know he should want the step up — it meant more prestige and more power. But when he asked female mentors for their input, they helped him see the experience from another side.
“They said, ‘You’re so great with the students. You love them so much. If you do become a principal and agree to it, is that what you want? Do you want to go on and be administrator and make changes at the administrative level, or is your real passion working with the kids?’” Schwiebert remembers. “He ended up turning down that position, because his decision was he really wanted to focus on the thing he loved.”
Walking a mentee through that kind of decision making, she says, and helping him or her find the choice that’s best for them — that is exactly what good mentorship is all about.