The Mentorist

Dial ‘M’ for Mentor


Perhaps it’s the fallout from Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In — or the ‘I-want-it-and-I-want-it-now’ ethos created by one-click shopping.  Whatever the reason, more and more professional women seem to be on a frantic hunt, of late, for someone within their company’s hierarchy to serve as their mentor.

But here’s the thing: Designating that a particular person in your firm or company is going to become your mentor has about as much chance of succeeding as does getting married to the first person you meet on (Don’t ask how I know that.)

I’m focusing this blog post on professional women, because men are mentored all the time by senior men in their organizations — whether or not they’re willing to call it that.  They’re also ‘sponsored’ (a subject for another Mentorist post), but — in my view — ‘male mentoring’ is, at least, as important to their success.

Younger men have a distinct advantage in finding mentors in the workplace, because senior men often see them as versions of their own younger selves.   This sense of affiliation creates a willingness on the senior person’s part to guide the younger person by ‘showing him how it’s done.‘  And, let’s face it:  The pool of potential mentors in most workplaces is still overrun with men.

So why don’t the few ‘women-near-the-top’ make it their mission to mentor the younger women they see coming up the ranks in their firms?  Indeed, some do.

Yet, I agree with the general sentiment that mentoring of women by women occurs less often than it should — even when taking into account the small number of women in senior positions.  The ‘Queen Bee Syndrome’ has been blamed for this, but I don’t completely buy it.

Instead, I think two things may explain why women don’t mentor other women in their workplaces more often.  First, most senior women still haven’t figured out all of the unwritten rules of the workplace game for themselves.  ‘The Way’ is much clearer for men — they’ve been making it to the very top for centuries.  Next, factor in the sociological observation that women tend not to hold themselves out as authorities on a subject until they’ve mastered it.  The combination turns women-to-women workplace mentoring into a scare resource.

Now, here’s where I risk getting really unpopular:  I think a second reason senior women are sometimes reluctant to mentor younger women is that the relationship can require a complex navigation of emotions.

I’ve mentored both men and women in the course of my career –- lots of each.  In the mentor’s role, you sometimes need to point out how – and why — others are reacting negatively to the mentee’s performance, behavior or ‘self-presentation.’  When I’ve used the same level of frankness with women as I employ with male mentees in these sorts of conversations, I’ve often been met with waves of self-doubt and dejection — sometimes, tears.  By contrast, my male mentees have tended to leave these sorts of conversations with their confidence intact, focused instead on hatching a ‘turn-around’ plan for their negative press.

Of course, I’ve learned to soften my comments somewhat and be less direct when mentoring younger women who are my work colleagues, but is this really doing them a service?  It certainly follows the unwritten code for conversations between women. [For more on this, see ]  However, the ‘real’ message (i.e., the one laced with negative news) risks being lost –- or, at least, takes longer to be received and acted upon.

Is it any wonder, then, that senior women — faced with their own mountainous demands and limited time to meet them — sometimes opt out of taking younger women under their wing?  This behavior isn’t admirable.  But it is explainable.

Now, wait:  Before you throw this blog post against the wall (and the iPad you’re reading it on with it), please know that it’s very possible for women to find mentors in the workplace –- both male and female.

Next week’s Mentorist post will explore ways to go about the search….

Finding a mentor

Author: Jane E. Owens

Jane E. Owens, The Mentorist’s chief blogger, has spent her career immersed in the business and culture of corporations and law firms. A former general counsel and corporate lawyer, Jane is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the professional world – and, through her mentoring practice, hopes to increase the ranks of the former. To learn more about Jane or suggest topics you'd like The Mentorist to discuss, go to:

2 thoughts on “Dial ‘M’ for Mentor

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