Does Gender Matter When It Comes To Choosing The Right Mentor? A Female Perspective on the Role of Gender in Professional Mentoring Relationships.
Gender isn’t something I’ve ever attached a lot of significance to because I believe that men and women are equally competent and necessary in the workplace.
I grew up as the middle child of three sisters, and we were fortunate to have a loving father who instilled in us an enduring belief that we could do or be whatever we wanted, as long as we put our mind to it. My father was convinced that women belong equally in the professional world and that eventually the number of women in leadership and management positions will equal those of men. And that conviction passed on to my sisters and me, for which I’m eternally grateful.
Due to this “can do” attitude instilled by my father, after high school I went on to study Science & Engineering – a field that typically has a low representation of females (only 15 – 30% of University degrees are earned by women worldwide in Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths – ref 1). And then following that, during my 15-year engineering career it was just an accepted fact that I was always in the minority as a female engineer – only 12.4% of all engineers were female in Australia’s labour force in 2016 (ref 2). It never bothered me that I was often the only female in a boardroom meeting.
And despite always being in the minority, I never felt any prejudice against me whatsoever. If anything, I was often treated with a healthy respect by my male counterparts.
In terms of mentors, both formal and informal, it was only natural that most of my mentors were men, given the low numbers of women in leadership positions. In fact, all of my mentors were male up until my mid-thirties, when I finally came across a rarity – a female boss who had worked her way in the Engineering World to a senior management position. It was refreshing to say the least, not just because she had a bright and bubbly personality, but also because she was committed to growing her employees and was always encouraging us to take on greater roles and positions.
It’s now been eight years since I quit my engineering career to branch out on my own as a Career Coach. During that eight years, I’ve taken on many different mentors as I’ve tried to learn everything I need to know about becoming a successful entrepreneur. I’ve had both male and female mentors, and it’s definitely been easier to find female mentors in the world of entrepreneurship. Statistics show that a growing number of women are starting their own businesses. Today there are double the number of female entrepreneurs compared to 20 years ago, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ref 3).
And while it’s good news that the number of female entrepreneurs is on the rise, the bad news is that female entrepreneurs don’t seem to be as good at making money as male entrepreneurs. It’s hard to find a female mentor who is truly successful in the financial sense.
One Australian Bureau of Statistics report showed that women who operate unincorporated businesses have an average weekly cash income of $522, while for men it is $831. And the average weekly cash income for incorporated business owners was $998 for women and $1,451 for men (Ref 4).
That’s a huge disparity.
But What Does This All Mean in Terms Of Mentorship?
In reflecting back on the qualities of the different mentors I’ve experienced over the course of both my engineering career and my coaching career, I realise I’ve been fortunate. All of my mentors have always been understanding, caring, compassionate, and committed to helping me develop as an individual and a professional.
The best mentoring relationships I’ve had have been where there’s been a strong match between my values and the values of my mentor, where the mentor is already in a position that I aspire to be in, and also where my mentoring needs have matched what my mentor was able to provide. I’ve found men to be equally compassionate when it comes to balancing work and personal needs, and they’ve always certainly been committed to helping me find a way to meet my career and personal goals.
I don’t feel that gender has been a significant factor in the success of my mentoring relationships – however, if I’m being completely honest with myself, I definitely do find it more enjoyable to be mentored by a female. There’s no denying that I feel a greater sense of ease, comfort, and enjoyment when working with a female.
And it seems I’m not alone in this sentiment. Dr. Stacy Blake-Beard conducted extensive research into the role of gender in mentoring relationships across more than 1000 college students in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math). One of her main conclusions was:
“Having a mentor of one’s own gender or race was felt to be important by many of the women… However, matching by gender did not appear to affect academic outcomes – even though students were more satisfied with their mentoring experience and believed race and/or gender matching to be important.”
Similar to my own experience, it appears that same-gender mentoring leads to a more enjoyable experience, but not necessarily better performance outcomes (ref 5).
However, aside from the comfort factor, there’s also another important factor that plays into my personal preference for female mentors.
And it’s all to do with…
The Invisible Barriers that Professional Females Face
Despite the fact that we might be treated equally at an individual level in the professional workplace, there are still a number of undeniable, invisible barriers that we face as women, including:
- The gender pay gap. In Australia, there is a real gender pay gap of 14.6% for full-time employees (Australian Bureau of Statistics).
- The “Glass Ceiling”. There is still an active, invisible barrier preventing women from reaching the top. Women hold under a quarter (24%) of senior roles across the world in 2018 (according to Catalyst’s Women in Management).
- Less investment funding is provided to female entrepreneurs. Business Insider France’s Elisabeth Hu found that enterprises founded by women receive about $935,000 in investments on average, while those founded by men receive an average of about $2.1 million, even though women have a much better return on investment (for every dollar of funding, start-ups founded by women generate 78 cents, compared to 31 cents for start-ups founded by men! Ref 6). So despite the fact that woman are safer bets when it comes to investing, there’s still an unspoken prejudice against them.
It’s simply not easy to make it to the top as a woman in the corporate world, or to establish yourself as a thriving, successful female entrepreneur in business. Finding a successful female mentor feels like finding gold.
A female who has managed to overcome all of the invisible barriers to ‘make it’ is a huge inspiration to other women.
And I believe this is the real underlying reason why I personally prefer female mentors. If they’ve managed to do it, then they can teach me to do it too.
The Power of Female-Female Mentorship
In 2018 I met the wonderful Marnie LeFevre – a highly successful international entrepreneur, author, speaker and marketer who founded the Secret Women’s Business Academy. Marnie is passionate about empowering women to establish themselves as successful entrepreneurs, because she knows intimately the struggles that women deal with when it comes to being successful in business. And she has a large following of women who want access to her rock-solid business wisdom.
I was honoured to join Marnie’s team in 2018 as one of her Business Academy Coaches. I now spend my days mentoring other women to start and run their own successful businesses. And part of the reason that Marnie’s Academy is so successful is that women really do love being mentored by other successful females.
As women, we know how hard it can be to forge your way as a successful professional woman or entrepreneur. And we crave to be guided by a woman who’s already managed to do what we aspire to do.
Over the past half-year I’ve enjoyed being personally mentored by Marnie herself. Being in her vortex has taught me so much about the nuts and bolts of what it takes to run a successful business, but perhaps more importantly, being around her has taught me about the mindset you require to truly make it in business.
Being around Marnie has instilled in me a sense of quiet confidence, a feeling of “If she can do it, I must be able to do it too.” And that, in my opinion, is what makes female-female mentorship so powerful.
What are your thoughts on the role of gender in mentoring relationships? What have been your experiences, both positive and negative? I’d love to hear all about them in the comments below!
In service to helping you live your brightest life,
Kate De Jong
Global Career Coach for Thriving Professionals
Inspired Careers International
Ref 2 Andre Kaspura, The Engineering Profession: A Statistical Overview (Thirteenth Edition) (Engineers Australia, 2017): p. 32.