Mentoring: Does Gender Matter?

The young woman in my office is crying. I push the Kleenex box closer to her across the desk. She pulls out another wad of tissues out and presses them to her face. We’ve been talking for almost an hour and through our whole conversation, tears ran down her face. The last few minutes she sobbed loudly, sucking in great gulps of air in between hiccups and blowing her nose.

Students don’t cry in my office every week, but college life is stressful and demanding. The majority of my students juggle work, family, and school. Sometimes it becomes too much. My job as faculty includes academic advising, which can include anything from recommending classes and instructors to providing a listening ear or a safe space in which to unload emotions. Hence the box of tissues.

The student in my office today is actually crying tears of relief. She’s just given herself permission to not drop out of school in order to take care of her boyfriend. He stopped taking the prescribed medication that controls his mental illness and instead self-medicates with pot and alcohol. This new regiment triggered several psychotic episodes and he’s been admitted to psychiatric care. His parents are pressuring the girlfriend to give up school and become the boyfriend’s full time caretaker. It’s not the first time the boyfriend has decided to give up medication and the parents feel like it’s no longer their responsibility to care for their son, since he now has a girlfriend. A girlfriend who’s nineteen.

She’s missed a lot of class, but we’ve created a plan for her to catch up. I ask her if she’s talked to her program advisor. She is not a science major and therefore technically not one of my official advisees, but she asked to talk to me weeks ago and we’ve had regular meetings. Her program advisor, a calm and caring colleague that I respect and admire, has added his input on the academic plan.

The young woman tells me she’s emailed with her program advisor but not seen him in person yet. “I couldn’t go to his office,” she says. “I knew I would be emotional and I can’t cry in front of a man.” When I ask why, she says it’s because she thinks he would hold it against her. I assure her this is not true, but she just shrugs as she reaches for another tissue.

I think back to my own academic career and the mentors and advisors that helped me along the way. Neither my undergraduate or my graduate program had female professors within the sciences. My sophomore year, I got a job as a research assistant for a professor who became a mentor I trusted and admired. I don’t remember crying in his office, but then I didn’t have to deal with hardship on the level many of my students do. I definitely felt comfortable sharing every tedious detail of my life with him. He listened to my problems while we worked in the lab and usually gave great advice, or knew just the right joke to make me feel better.

The one time I did notice that talking with a woman made a difference was when I needed career advice at the end of graduate school. An alumna from the program helped me prepare for a job interview. In addition to the usual interview coaching, she gave me a list of questions I should ask. The job I considered included a lot of traveling and she coached me to ask whether or not hotel dry cleaning services would be included in the business expenses. “You want to pack so you can use only carryon luggage. As you go from site to site, you’ll want to dry clean your clothes,” she said. “Men can get away with wearing the same suit if they change their shirt and tie, but women need a new outfit every day.” She also told me to insist on a travel budget that covered a proper hotel where the door to the room opened into an inside corridor, not straight outside. “You have to make sure you’re safe.” I don’t think a man would have thought to tell me about those aspects of being a female business traveler. Not because he didn’t think they were important, but because they wouldn’t be within his realm of consciousness. And the advice she gave me wasn’t earth shattering. I would have survived having to pay for my own dry cleaning and most companies use hotels with inside doors.

However, the alumna ended up being an amazing mentor and friend through my professional career. I asked her advice in a number of tricky situations, including when a male customer became over-friendly, when a male co-worker received a raise because a male manager assumed he’d been in charge of one of my projects, and when a female administrator reacted badly to having to work with a female engineer (me). My mentor’s advice was invaluable and helped me handle those situations with minimum damage to my professional reputation and status.

The reason I connected with the phenomenal alumni was because a male professor gave me her phone number. He didn’t give me her phone number because we were both women, but because she had a similar job to the one I had applied for. Had I entered that graduate program just a few years earlier, that amazing mentor would not have been available. She was one of the few women who graduated before me. Because she was female and could relate to the situations I needed help with, I felt much more comfortable sharing my problems with her. And I cried on her shoulder plenty of times, both in person and over the phone.

4 Comments

  • Amaris Amaris says:

    I have been thinking about the flip side of this: does the gender of the (mentee?) matter? Just last weekend, I was having dinner with two coaches and they were talking about how it is common for a coach to be more successful with one gender than the other. One coach was male and one was female. Both were better with men/boys and could not figure out how to talk to women/girls. For instance, what motivates women to compete? Communication styles differ: How do you give them advice during a lesson? Is that different than when you give them advice during the heat of competition?
    The male coach shared a story: “So-and-so said he’d never be able to go back to coaching men after a couple years with mostly women. He was coaching this guy on the strip, and the guy was losing. When the athlete came off for advice”—“Did so-and-so hug him?” the female coach asked—“he started with saying, ‘Look, it’s okay…’ It’s okay? It’s not okay. The guy was losing. Losing is not ‘okay.’”
    Yesterday I looked a sports psychology article that confirmed women don’t respond well to advice that it yelled and tucked between “You suck!” and “I thought you could do this.” But the article mentioned a few other things about how to think about giving criticism to women. That usually little girls are taught to not strive for excellence and to not be the best. When you are the best, people dislike you and talk poorly about you. To try to be the best is to be selfish. Little girls are still socialized to be unselfish to a fault, to be cooperative, and soft-spoken. As a coach or mentor, you have to teach women that to want to be excellent is okay, to be excellent is desirable.

    • -Oh, this is super interesting. I’ve never thought about whether I modify my behavior or advise when my mentee is male vs. female. I’ve had men cry in my office too, but not as often as women. Probably because we teach males at a young age that tears are not okay.

      -And I love your point about “As a coach or mentor, you have to teach women that to want to be excellent is okay, to be excellent is desirable.” This is very true. And that when they are excellent, not to minimize their contributions or apologize for them.

      -I have a friend who’s a high school physics teacher and also the women’s soccer coach. I’m going to have some very interesting conversations with him when I see him next. :-)

  • Jere says:

    I find this post super fascinating. Especially since I had a male mentor at one time who mentored me until I broke down in his office. I was harassed by three of the male colleagues and it was exhausting. His attitude was to buck up and deal. In his defense, that is what he would have told a male, however, my perceived weakness never left his mind and I ended the relationship. I have had male and female mentors since. I must admit, my female mentors have my ear more because they fought for equality and know the insidious passive agressive ways women colleagues can be treated if an agency allows it. Love this bestie. Reposting

    • Sounds like your male mentor was using coaching techniques that works for male athletes. I grew up with mostly boys, so I had to be coached on how women communicate. As you know, I’m still not always successful. :-)

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