Ask people for their most important piece of career advice, and I bet a lot of people will tell you to get a rock star mentor. Someone to hitch your star to. But no one will tell you how to actually meet this life-changing mentor and foster your relationship. I advance that the challenge of finding and developing meaningful mentors is significantly harder for young women than for young men. My top three mentors, the people who I go to when I need to make a choice that could potentially alter my professional trajectory, are all men. I find this particularly odd, given the fair share of contrived women’s mentorship programs I am/have been enrolled in. So why is this? Some of my reasons are personal. My male mentors provide aggressively candid and decisive opinions, whereas female mentors will try to illuminate the pros and cons of various options and allow me to reach a decision of my own. I think that a great mentor will push you to realize your full potential by taking risks and will tell you when you are off course, and I far prefer the frank and conclusive style that I have thus far only found in male mentors. That being said, there are several other structural and social reasons why young women have issues finding strong women mentors and developing strong mentorship relationships with men
Access to effective women mentors
The majority of women that I have been set up with through formal mentorship programs, such as Georgetown Women in International Affairs or McKinsey, are simply too early in their careers to offer trajectory-changing advice. Women in their late-20’s/early 30’s can provide invaluable advice about the recruiting process or your first client meeting, but it is difficult for them to guide you to the top of the ladder because they haven’t reached the top rung themselves. I have developed some really meaningful friendships and “big sister” relationships with young and accomplished-for-their-age women, but not the sort of deep mentorship relationships that make a career.
So why not tap mature, senior manager level women as mentors? Well first of all, there is the structural issue that there just aren’t many women at the top. Fortunately, there is increasingly a shift away from the “box out the competition” logic that used to be the words of Madeleine Albright (whom I would LOVE as my mentor), “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” But even when women with impressive careers have extended their hand to mentor me, most want to discuss the challenges of balancing a career with a relationship and family. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been to an all-women “professional development” panel/networking session/etc. to be told that the best career move I could make is to find a supportive partner. Seriously?!? Do you think men my age are being told that the best career move they could make is to find a supportive partner? This is not the type of advice that I need at 21 years old. I need to be told how to be the best social entrepreneur/consultant/international development practitioner possible. I need to be taught how to navigate the international politics of an employer to advance my success. I need to be introduced to potential funders, partners, and future bosses. But I do NOT need a lesson in parenting when I don’t even have kids!
Development of male mentors
So this brings me to my second challenge facing young women: the challenge of developing strong mentor relationships with men. Some of this may be the fact that male leaders are more likely to “see themselves” in a male protégée, which is in itself problematic. But to be completely frank, the main damper on the development of these strong male-female mentorships is the potential for sex.
When you join McKinsey, you are paired with a “buddy.” All of the buddies are of the same gender. This sets the norm that mentor relationships are to happen within your gender, to best prevent the development of inappropriate sexual relationships. This is incredibly limiting for women, especially those trying to develop mentorships with men who are older and more professionally established but not yet in the stably-married-with-multiple-children age range (and even THIS is not a total safe zone).
I an provide multiple anecdotes of people perceiving platonic mentor relationships as inappropriate sexual relationships, or men in power being hesitant to really invest time and energy in me for fear that their interest would be seen as more than professional. People raise an eyebrow when a male, mid-level manager takes a female new-hire alone to dinner and drinks. When I was working for my State Senator, I noticed that he would always take the male intern out to evening and weekend events. When I asked him why I was never invited to accompany him, he responded, “I wouldn’t want people to think I was cheating on my wife.” Needless to say, no mentor relationship budded there.
As a second point, women are far less likely to be invited to male-dominated social events, like poker night and intermural basketball, where meaningful intergenerational relationships form among current and future leaders. Women are also excluded from other settings, including some of Georgetown’s secret societies, where meaningful mentor relationships among men are inevitably formed. Therefore, women’s interactions with senior leaders, who are still mostly men, are largely confined to sterile, professional environments, which severely limits the depth of the mentor relationship.
Without directive and emotionally invested mentors, women are at a severe professional disadvantage. A great mentor can help make integral introductions, map the industry, and evaluate competing opportunities. If women want to increase their numbers at the top, they need access to effective, high-ranking women leaders who provide substantive professional guidance and the opportunity to develop platonic but intimate relationships with male mentors at all professional levels.