Men in business have long enjoyed fruitful mentor relationships with male colleagues, but now more than ever business people are recognizing the value of female mentors to all employees, regardless of gender.
Women are adept and inspiring leaders in the workplace, yet the powerful role of female mentors is often downplayed in favor of a focus on male mentorship. Discover the importance of mentorship, and how mentorship from inspirational female leaders is empowering to all employees, regardless of gender.
Gender Dynamics in a Post-#MeToo Era
In the wake of #MeToo, men in the workplace are increasingly taking a step back from mentoring women, worried that colleagues may scrutinize male-female workplace relationships more strictly for potential impropriety.
A 2019 survey of over 5,100 U.S.-based adults conducted by SurveyMonkey and Lean In found that 86% of men have avoided one or more of the following work activities with a woman out of fear that their workplace relationship might be viewed as inappropriate:
- Mentoring women
- Being mentored by women
- Working alone with a woman
Clearly, the trend of men avoiding mentorship roles hurts women in the workplace who lose out on the benefits of a mentor-mentee relationship:
- Sharing their wisdom and experience, helping employees navigate career challenges
- Connecting with other professionals in their network, facilitating communication between industry experts and early career workers
- Encouraging new ways of thinking, spurring mentees to come up with creative solutions at work
- Challenging assumptions, leading to improved clarity and efficiency
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and co-founder of Lean In, has said in response to the reluctance by men to mentor women at work post-#MeToo: “I really think we are facing a very serious crisis for women in getting promoted.”
Myths About Female Mentorship
Since the study and discussion of mentorship has long focused on mentor-mentee relationships among men, it is useful to dispel common myths about female mentorship.
Dispelling the Capability Myth: Women Are Equally Capable Leaders
A majority of Americans view men and women as equally capable leaders, according to a 2018 Pew Research Poll. Pew found that people of all genders perceive women as equally likely to exhibit essential leadership traits:
- Standing by their values
- Telling the truth
- Persevering under pressure
These are crucial traits that a person, regardless of gender, might cultivate in collaboration with a supportive female mentor.
Dispelling the Visibility Myth: Women Already Mentor at a Disproportionately High Rate
Results from the 2021 “Women in the Workplace” report by McKinsey & Company show that women leaders are already doing more than their fair share of mentorship in business compared to men.
Though men in senior leadership positions outnumber women (by 50%), employees of all genders are equally likely to say that women leaders have supported their career development as that men leaders have. The study draws the conclusion that women currently shoulder around double the mentorship load.
Harvard Business Review gives plenty of examples of female mentors who have led men to great professional success. Consider:
- PepsiCo’s CEO Indra Nooyi, who mentored her successor Ramon Laguarta
- Home Depot’s CFO Carol B. Tomé, who mentored her replacement, Richard McPhail
Gender Dynamics in Mentoring
Although general mentoring ideas and principles may be gender neutral, women on average may bring unique strengths to a mentor-mentee relationship based on public perceptions.
Consider how workers tend to associate female mentors with safety, the ability to achieve compromise, and the emotional agility required to foster innovation.
Women Mentors Contribute to Safe and Respectful Workplaces
According to a Pew Research Center survey, 89% of adults say business leaders must create a safe and respectful workplace.
It turns out that women in positions of authority contribute to the sense that a workplace is both safe and respectful. When the same Pew poll asked whether men or women in top executive positions are better at creating safe and respectful workplaces, 43% said female executives while only 5% said male executives. A little over half (52%) said male and female leaders are equally capable.
Thus, the presence of female mentors may signal that an organization has a safer, more respectful workplace, on average.
It’s no wonder that safety and respect rank at the top of a list of qualities and behaviors the public views as essential for corporate leadership. For businesses to thrive, they need to take calculated risks while retaining high-quality talent. Company cultures that burn out their employees, or foster intimidation and competition rather than open communication and collaboration, tend to suffer.
Female Mentorship Strengths
In a fast-paced, ever-evolving professional world, leaders need to learn to handle the heat. Mentors, through experience, have a good professional sense of what traits their mentees will need to develop in order to lead well — no matter what challenges may arise.
Like skills, character traits influence what an individual does, such as: tell the truth, move forward with a difficult decision, apologize to a teammate, resolve to correct their mistakes, and so on. Unlike skills, character traits come from deep within a person: They guide how the person reacts under pressure.
One much-needed character trait in professional settings is empathy. As a 2018 Pew Research Poll suggests, many people perceive female mentors as generally more empathetic than their male counterparts.
In fact, when women lead, the Pew Poll found, their teams perceive female leaders as generally:
- More compassionate
- More empathetic
- Better able to achieve compromises
Female mentors should lead from their strengths and model character traits that can serve their mentees well in times of crisis, such as:
Women Mentors Promote Innovative Thinking
Diverse teams are more innovative than less diverse teams, reports a 2020 Forbes magazine article, “Diversity Confirmed to Boost Innovation and Financial Results.” Findings from Boston Consulting Group found that among 1,700 companies across the U.S., diversity promoted novel thinking and adaptability.
Because female mentors have experienced being an outsider in a male-dominated culture, they may bring important perspectives that can help mentees think flexibly and creatively about their projects, goals, and career paths.
Women Empowering Other Women
Following a 2019 report by professional services firm KPMG, “Advancing the Future of Women in Business,” USA Today shared recommendations for women leaders, including female mentors, as they collaborate in the workplace.
Some of these leadership tips speak to the ways that inspirational female leaders support and mentor other women:
- Ask for feedback and listen to advice. Receiving and responding to others’ feedback is a key part of a mentoring relationship. This fosters honest communication. Mentors and mentees should also keep in mind that most communication is nonverbal, so being able to read a mentor/mentee’s nonverbal cues can help foster compassionate communication.
- Be authentic. Women in powerful positions can uplift other women by emphasizing that leadership comes in many different forms. Seeking out mentors can encourage mentees to experiment with and learn from different leadership styles.
- Seek community. A support system can bolster a worker’s career. Women mentors should encourage their workers to network, collaborate, and connect with other professionals in the same field.
How to Find a Female Mentor
Many people in the workforce would benefit from female mentorship. A challenge for many people is that they don’t know how to go about finding a mentor in the first place.
Start with Shared Activities
Having something in common is a comfortable place to start a mentorship. Workers may think about the activities they do regularly, or would like to participate in.
Have access to an alumni network? Volunteer at a charitable organization? Play pickleball after work? Watch true crime dramas? Starting from a common interest can get the relationship off on the right foot.
Leverage Professional Networks
In today’s ever-connected world, professionals have more ways to meet and exchange information than ever before. Online networking platforms such as LinkedIn can help professionals connect, for example, but so can interest groups on Facebook, Instagram, and other social media sites.
Cold calling another professional may seem daunting. Having at least a shared connection via a social media group can help to make that introduction easier. For example, a female sommelier might find others in the field through an Instagram industry sessions group.
To identify a mentor, an employee should start by finding a woman they respect — someone with expertise and industry knowledge, skills they want to develop themselves, a professional style they wish to emulate, and/or excellent character traits. Then the employee should ask the woman to be their mentor.
The conversation can start as simply as: “I admire your approach to work and the values you stand for. Would you be willing to meet with me on a regular basis as a mentor? I think I could learn a lot from you.”
Connect with Powerful Mentors
Women are adept and inspiring mentors who lead with empathy, compassion, and a keen sense for finding compromise. While anyone can be a mentor in theory, female mentors may be especially equipped to create a more equitable workplace.
Students need mentors, too. Those who complete St. Catherine University’s online business degree programs benefit from female mentorship and a robust business curriculum. By pursuing an online business management degree, students gain experience in planning, strategizing, and managing all aspects of business, from allocating resources to creating innovative business plans. St. Kate’s programs equip graduates with the necessary skills to become leaders in business.
Center for American Progress, “The Women’s Leadership Gap”
Forbes, “Diversity Confirmed to Boost Innovation and Financial Results”
Forbes, “Mentoring Matters: The Importance of Female Mentorship”
Global Citizen, “9 Inspirational Women Leaders from the Last 100 Years You Should Definitely Know”
Harvard Business Review, “7 Leadership Lessons Men Can Learn from Women”
Harvard Business Review, “Challenging Our Gendered Idea of Mentorship”
LinkedIn, “Why Men Need Female Mentors”
McKinsey & Company, “Women in the Workplace 2021”
Pew Research Center, “Many Americans Say Women Are Better Than Men at Creating Safe, Respectful Workplaces, Say Many in US”
Pew Research Center, “Men, Women Differ Over Some Qualities They See as Essential for Political and Business Leadership”
Pew Research Center, “Women and Leadership”
SurveyMonkey, “How #MeToo Has Impacted Mentorship for Women”
USA Today, “What Everyone Can Learn from a New Report on Women's Leadership Styles”