What male mentors don’t know about mentoring women

Some advice for male mentors working with women

male mentors

With a disproportionately low number of women in senior roles to mentor women, it falls on male leaders to step up and take over the mentoring function. Many are willing and open, but without basic training they simply don’t understand the real issues that impact women in the workplace. The mentoring process is about “walking in someone’s shoes” and clearly male mentors have not faced the same challenges as women. What tends to happen is they endorse and embed even further, male coded ideas and practises. Why wouldn’t they? It’s all they know.

So how can that gap be filled?

For the first time in history men and women occupy the workplace in almost equal numbers. Women are increasingly ambitious for senior roles. Also for the first time men have to deal with women as colleagues and reports, and not as wives, mothers, sisters or any other female relationship. This causes a number of difficulties and everyone ends up trying to skirt around the issues.

The Harvard Business Review in December 2016 focuses on challenges centered around the usual stereotypical thinking:

Sexual attraction and gossip

Rumors of mentor romances may be greatly exaggerated

Sexual attraction and gossip can be occasionally be an issue, where a junior woman does indeed lust after a senior man. However, research from JUMP and Axiom Consulting report that a whopping 80% of women experience sexism in the workplace on a daily basis. 23% report direct sexual harassment. So the likelihood of that happening to men are frankly slim. The authors of the HBR post do finally get round to suggesting that she’s probably “not that into you.”

Gossip is something women also fear and the best way of handling that is to conduct all mentoring sessions in a public space and during office hours. One female participant at a workshop shared how her male mentor wanted to have their mentoring session in a spa. As in a getting naked spa. The answer has to be to firmly decline and in the context of a formal programme to report that suggestion to the programme organiser. But many women fear reprisals if official action is taken and simply end up gossiping about “office letches.”

Read: 4 mentoring myths that cause confusion

Women crying

You may have to deal with some tears

Yes really. Men worry about women crying. If a male mentors are properly trained there is nothing that should happen in the context of a mentoring relationship that should reduce the mentee to tears. That said, the issues that women confront in the workplace including sexism, exclusion, loss of opportunity and voice, as well as bullying can be upsetting. It’s also not just about women. There is a science based note. Research from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, suggests that when women cry, men’s testosterone levels drop significantly. An article in the New Scientist indicates that:

Tears of sadness contain a chemical turn-off for men. Like animal tears, human tears may influence the behaviour of others by smell alone.”

In an alpha, male-coded environment this causes high levels of discomfort. I do know many men who worry about this greatly.

There is a big divide on crying in the office. Personally, I am against all forms of extreme emoting of any kind in the workplace and crying is only one of them. Yelling, throwing things, door slamming and so on come into that category. Crying is not appropriate unless there is a genuine crisis (death, loss or other emotional challenge.) For any male mentors faced with a tearful employee, the response would be to give her a Kleenex, wait for it to slow down and stop, establish the trigger and reframe the experience. Physical contact of comfort would be ill-advised and could be mis-construed. Bringing in the support of another woman would also be helpful at that point.

Read: Why men don’t like women crying in the office 

Unconscious bias training left out

Career Plateau

You have to be conscious of the bias women face

This is the one area which many discussions on male mentors does not cover.  All male mentors need to have training on unconscious bias and how it impacts women in the workplace.  Many are oblivious to the customs, practises, codes and behaviours, that they take for granted that serve men well, but are barriers for women. They expect to have a transactional connection with their mentees related to promotion positioning, network introductions and even the transfer of skills and knowledge. That is they expect to treat them like male mentees. But women often need more support on navigating male-coded cultures and politics.

Very often the challenges facing women in the workplace are also influenced by outside factors which for men are not primary considerations, although that is shifting. Men can also have different communication styles and perspectives to women that require insight that men don’t always have. Younger generations expect more nuanced and less gender stereotyped responses. As male mentors are usually older, they need support to adjust to these cultural changes accordingly.

Read: Top 5 videos that highlight and tackle unconscious bias

It is not enough to expect senior men to mentor women without training. When I have trained groups of men they are surprised at the sub-text to some of the issues. Many push-back at situations and concepts that are unfamiliar. Changing mindsets and behaviours developed over a lifetime will not change over night. It needs time and professional input.

If the male mentors in your business need training

Contact 3Plus now!



Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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