When you’re seeking to go further in your career, one of the most fundamental pieces of advice is to find a good mentor. But, for women, even that kind of basic professional relationship isn’t without complications.
Some recent research finds that a surprising number of women either don’t have access to mentoring programs or don’t seek them out. A 2014 survey by ORC International sponsored by financial services firm Edward Jones found that just 30% of Americans have access to formal mentorship and sponsorship programs in their workplaces. Of that, just 18% of women who have access to the programs take advantage of them. Sixty-three percent of women surveyed for a 2013 Development Dimensions International study said they’d never had a formal mentor.
And even when women do seek out other women as mentors, there may be consequences. A July 2014 paper presented at the Annual Meeting of Academy Management found that some women are penalized for mentoring other women and fostering diversity.
A mistake some women make when seeking a mentor is to look for another woman who has achieved some measure of seniority, says Pamela McCauley, professor of the Department of Industrial Engineering and Management Systems at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Looking for a mentor based on gender may not leave you with the best option to help you move forward in your career. Instead, you should be looking for a mentor with enough power and experience to truly help you.
“If you’re a woman and you’re only considering other women as mentors, you’re automatically limiting access, especially in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] areas where we often don’t see women as high in the organization as they could be,” McCauley says.
Men may also bring different skill sets and perspectives, says educator and life coach Felicia Clark. Recently, Clark was working on a book about body acceptance, and she sought out the advice of experienced authors as mentors to help her learn the book-publishing ropes. She says that many women advised her to be cautious and advised her to “pay her dues” and focus on the way she was helping people as her reward. However, the men who helped her encouraged her to be bold, find ways to cut her expenses, and ask for more money for speaking engagements. Of course, there are women who are bold and men who are meek, but the mix of perspectives helped Clark advance her business.
“I learned from both the women and men, but the men usually had less fear about asking for what they thought they could get. It was a good lesson, she says.
In some cases, women gravitate toward other women as mentors because of the perception that they’ll understand and give advice on balancing work and personal demands, McCauley says. But she reminds women seeking mentors that men often face similar challenges balancing work and family, and may bring fresh perspectives about managing those challenges. Instead of focusing on gender, women should be asking several key questions to find the right mentor.
- Is this person successful enough to help me advance in my career? Mentors can be champions and connectors as well as sources of sound advice. If your ambition is big, find a mentor who can help you get there, McCauley says.
- Does this person understand the mentoring process?
- How does this person interact with women? Clark looks for signs that a prospective mentor is going to treat her with respect. If the mentor is condescending, calls you “honey” or “dear,” or is put off by your ambition or success, move on.
- Is this person a good teacher? You may find a powerful, dynamic person who is a terrible, impatient teacher. That’s generally not a good choice for a mentor. One man Clark was considering as a mentor told her, “I’ll tell you what to do, but if you don’t do it and you’re not successful, it’s your fault.” That authoritarian attitude told her that he wouldn’t allow her to explore the best approaches for her. She moved on to find someone else.
- Is this person willing to help and enthusiastic about devoting the time it will take to be a mentor? Bottom line: Your mentor has to want to invest some time in you to be effective, McCauley says.