There are many reasons why the answer might be yes, including the percentage of mid-to-senior managers who are men, the demands on women’s time, and the way women network. But there may be another factor influencing our perceptions: our expectation that women will be supportive and nurturing may keep us from seeing all of the mentoring that women do.
Someone asked that question recently after observing in mentoring training workshop that the participants were much more likely to name a man as their mentor vs. a women. The person posing the question was concerned that women might need to do a better job of stepping up to providing mentoring and support to junior colleagues.
It occurred to me that there were a multitude of reasons why, whether it was reality or perception, that we might conclude that women do less mentoring than men.
Do the Math
The first reason is simple math: there are more men in mid-to-senior management levels who can serve as mentors. As discussed in a previous post, McKinsey & LeanIn found in their pipeline analysis that while men are just over half of entry-level professionals, they are 65% of senior managers and directors, and 76% of senior executives. There’s a reason that when we think of who can help us advance, we think of men - there’s more of them in a position to be mentors.
Demands on Women’s Times
A second factor that may contribute to any gender differences in mentoring is the demands on women’s time - both on the job and off. We know that women still shoulder most of the burden for care-giving and household management at home. What may not be obvious is what happens at work, where women are more likely to be assigned the “office housework” and other tasks that aren’t part of their formal responsibilities and aren’t considered when it comes time for promotions. This is especially true in academia, where female professors are expected (and more likely) to do the work that does not lead to tenure and advancement - teaching, academic advising (basically mentoring), serving on committees (like diversity and inclusion), etc.
The Nature of Our Networks
Related to the demands on women’s time is the lower priority women put on networking (where you can meet people who can be a mentor/mentee for you). Recent research out of Germany points to a number of challenges that women have in networking, including that we tend to network with peers and lower-level associates while men are more apt to network up the ladder. Women may also lack confidence in their ability to contribute to their network, and they report being uncomfortable asking for assistance from network members. It doesn’t help that networking activities are often scheduled in the evening/on the weekends, when women really feel the pressure of the work and care-giving they know are waiting for them at home. The stereotypical male nature of many networking activities (like golf, sporting events, etc.) is usually the final straw for women faced with heading to the ballpark or heading home.
Expectations and Biases
There’s one other issue, however, that may also contribute to any perceptions we have about men, women, and the amount of mentoring they do. Back in 1999, Joyce Fletcher studied a group of female design engineers and found that the emotional intelligence and relational behaviors demonstrated by the women “disappeared” because those behaviors don’t fit with gender-specific stereotypes about the behaviors of successful managers. We don’t necessarily expect men to be nurturing and supportive, and as a result, we may notice it more when men demonstrate those behaviors. When women nurture and support, it fits with our expectations and therefore we notice it less.
One final note: There’s also research that suggests that women prefer mentoring relationships that are a two-way street - peer to peer - vs. the more traditional hierarchy of mentor and mentee. Since this, again, may not fit with our definition of mentoring, we may not think of the support we get from women as “mentoring.”