Does Gender Influence Mentoring…?

Does Gender Influence Mentoring…?

By: Jen Renwick | March 14, 2019

Growing up in Australia I learnt to be ‘one of the blokes.’ As the only female student in my physics and chemistry class, I realised from a young age that gender was irrelevant when aspiring to a career in science. It could have been very different, and I am sure it was for many women, so I consider myself fortunate to have been influenced by this positive experience and later by several excellent mentors, both male and female. Mentoring can range from a formal assignment within a corporate program, to a more informal relationship. I’ve always found the latter to be more effective, both personally and from the experience of managing and developing staff. 

This is probably because the choice of mentor is within the individual’s control and often happens organically, as we are naturally drawn to people we can learn from and who are aligned or ‘on the same wavelength’. It also helps for a mentor to have detailed content knowledge of your role and the topics you are likely to need advice on, plus the people and situations you may be trying to navigate.

Mentors draw from their own experience, so it is important to build a diverse group of mentors, advisors, and role-models. I’ve not found gender to be a determining factor in the success of these relationships. However, men and women can think about things differently, and it can be useful to present both female and male mentors with the same problem to get a different or more well-rounded perspective.  In doing this I came to realise it’s not about gender but the mentor’s skills and strengths.

“Mentors draw from their own experience, so it is important to build a diverse group of mentors, advisors, and role-models.”

Traditionally, female mentors have often had the advantage of being able to offer direct advice on a wider range of topics including work/life balance and juggling a family alongside professional commitment, however I have taken useful advice on these topics from both female and male colleagues.  Whether or not you agree with Sheryl Sandberg’s (COO of Facebook) much publicized advice that women should ‘lean in’, there is no doubt that successfully raising a family within a two-career household requires great effort, organisational skills and a partner who is prepared to be a true partner.

Importantly, I have benefited (still do…) from executive mentors who are male but who have the ability to demonstrate many of the softer skills that are traditionally associated with females e.g.: communication skills, empathy, intuition, an interest in understanding people. What all mentors I’ve been lucky enough to know have taught me, is the importance of building a strong team and challenging the status quo.  They also instilled in me some principles that have shaped my leadership style (which I think the boys in the physics class would probably agree with!):

  1. Be authentic and consistent; people will always spot a fraud, eventually
  2. Be respected for what you achieve and, more importantly, how you go about achieving it; popularity is a bonus and usually transient
  3. Always focus on people first; anything is possible if you can motivate the right people to succeed