Thanks for completing our study on gender and mentoring!

In this study, we asked half of you to answer questions about mentoring a female protege.  The other half answered the same questions about mentoring a male protege.

Previous research shows that female proteges often receive different types of mentoring.  There are a few different possible explanations.  For example, it is possible that female proteges receive different treatment because they tend to work in different kinds of jobs (e.g., women are underrepresented in engineering but overrepresented in nursing).

We wondered if one explanation might be that people have different assumptions about what good mentoring looks like when thinking of male versus female proteges.   Particularly for people who think of women as needing protection (a set of beliefs called “benevolent sexism”), we thought that people might be inclined to help — but engage in types of mentoring that might be actually harmful to their careers (shielding them from conflict, protecting them from high-risk, high-reward activities, etc.)

We found some gender differences, but not all the ones we expected.  We found that men, as prospective mentors, were more likely to see their role as promoting, protecting and challenging proteges of both genders.  And, we found that female proteges were less likely to be required to “measure up”.  That is, we found that both men and women were more likely to think that men should have to “prove themselves” and demonstrate their ability before the mentor would invest time and energy into the mentorship relationship.  However, we didn’t find that male-female mentor-protege pairs were any more likely to steer proteges away from risky but rewarding work.

So, what can you take away from this?  We’re not saying that women don’t get shielded from rewarding (but risky) opportunities.  We have heard anecdotally from many people that this occurs.  But our study seems to show that the reason for this isn’t just about sexist beliefs, and it does not appear to be about differences in how people think about mentoring in general.  Our next steps will be to look at real mentor-protege pairs over time, seeing how their relationships develop over time.

Our advice for mentors is to think carefully about “measuring up”.  Are you asking more out of your male versus female proteges?   We found that both men and women thought of it as less appropriate to ask females to prove themselves before investing time in mentoring.  Ask yourself how this might influence your proteges’ career progress, for better or for worse.  If you think it’s important for proteges to prove themselves, you should be careful to ask the same out of proteges of both genders.

Want to learn more about mentoring?  There is a helpful and easy-to-read introduction to mentoring here.  If you’d like a bit of a heavier read on how gender and mentoring interact, there is a research paper on the topic available here.

Thanks again for your help!  If you have any additional questions or comments, feel free to contact us using the form below.