Stop Trying To Fix Women. Mentor Them Instead

How Gender Humility Helps

By David Smith & W. Brad Johnson. 

For far too long, businesses (men) have tried to solve workplace gender bias, inequality, and poor recruitment and retention of women by “fixing” women (i.e., employing varied but consistently fruitless efforts to shape them in men’s image). Strategies to press women into male molds persist despite good evidence that gender-diverse workplaces are more effective in bottom-line terms.

Unfortunately, such strategies are also visible when some men attempt to mentor women at work. Research on mentoring relationships in organizational settings reveals that gender-informed mentoring practices—mentoring that honors, even celebrates, the unique contributions of women to the workplace—often provide women with professional and personal benefits that can help level the playing field, enhance retention, and heighten the probability that women will ascend to leadership roles.
Here is the rub: men are not as likely to initiate a mentoring relationship with a woman and when they do, they often fall back on uniquely masculine “bro” mentoring strategies which often are less effective for women. Such “bro” strategies are ubiquitous to male relationships and tend to be based on competition, x-rated humor, backslaps, and a focus on tasks to the exclusion of all else. While they might work for many of the “dudes” down the hall, they may ultimately leave some women feeling misunderstood, further isolated, and forced to hide their genuine career ambitions and life priorities.
Men who mentor women well appreciate the barriers women face in achieving parity and being seriously considered for promotion to key leadership jobs. Excellent male mentors work to rein in their fixing and problem-solving tendencies. In Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women, we explore men’s professional relationships with women at work and how they can mentor in a gender-inclusive way. Rather than try to “fix” his mentee or mute her approach to work, a stellar male mentor learns to listen, appreciate, and then encourage and promote the women he mentors.
An excellent male mentor must first embody gender humility—the art of being self-aware, transparent, and humble about what you don’t know while demonstrating honest curiosity about a woman’s unique experience and current concerns. Our research with some of the most successful women across industries revealed a common theme in their career experiences—their male mentors consistently were able to meet these women where they were and worked to understand what each mentee needed to thrive in her career. If we can really listen to our mentees, then we start to understand how their experiences may have differed from our own. Only then can we begin to empathize with what could be a very different set of work experiences coming up through the ranks as a woman.
Why and how exactly could her experiences be all that different from the way we as men are perceived and compared at work?

  • She is much more likely to be perceived negatively for expressing certain emotions, such as anger or frustration, and might think twice about discussing her accomplishments (largely due to a “culture that mandates modesty” for women).
  • Because so many men aren’t bearing their fair share of the burden at home, she may experience greater demands outside of work than her male mentor and, therefore, greater tension about how to effectively balance career advancement with family life.
  • Her definition of career success may be quite different, with greater emphasis on intrinsically rewarding roles, self-development, and work–life effectiveness.
  • If she is a woman of color, she may have experienced double jeopardy in her life and career, working against both gender and race stereotypes. This is called intersectionality (here’s a primer for that).

You get the picture—her path to this point in her career and life is likely different in many ways from a man at the same company.
It may seem like a daunting challenge for some men to empathize with a female mentee’s unfamiliar life experiences. Similarly, it may be challenging for her to identify with a man as an important role model. We think men will find that employing a healthy dose of gender humility is helpful in cross-gender mentoring relationships. By maintaining a learning orientation with a mentee, mentors often find that they learn as much or more from their mentee as the mentee does from them.

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