Identifying Mentors and Avoiding Gender-based Bias

– by Michelle Todd

A senior woman once told me, “you really need to find a male and female mentor. A male will give you the practical knowledge and skills to be the leader you need to be, and a female, well, she’ll give you that empathy stuff…”

That happened over five years ago, and my memory is a little foggy (I have two young daughters, so sleep doesn’t come as swiftly as once before) – so I’ve ad-libbed, yet the point I raised internally at the time remains:

Why would I want to do that?

The reality behind those words still strikes me today. It also shows that even though workplaces have come so far, there is still have a long way to go.

When approaching mentoring in the workplace, or even personally, there is a need to think about what it is you are looking for. Do you need advice on how to influence stakeholders? Are you struggling with those hard, yet must have conversations? Do you need to tell your colleague to stop reheating three-day-old salmon casserole in the microwave?

It doesn’t matter what you’re looking for, applying gender-based stereotypes is:

  1. wrong
  2. wrong
  3. glad you’re still reading, and
  4. likely to make you miss someone who has the key skills, methods, experience and approaches you need to explore so that you can further your career and sail toward your goals.

Identifying what you need is critical to identifying who you need as a mentor. Of course, you might find that once you have identified those key people, they all happen to be women – or vice versa. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you are clear about the purpose of your mentoring and can identify who you need to approach.

Engaging in constructive conversations with your potential mentor is critical – this is the true test for you in being able to know whether the skills/attributes you had identified are there for you to explore (it also helps you refine, change, or even stop mentoring conversations when you need to). Once you have sealed the deal, then you can start challenging those tricky topics as needed and determine what guidance is relevant to you at that point in time.

Always remember: take all your advice and guidance with a grain of salt, because it is just that, advice and guidance. If, like me, you are told to approach either a man or a woman because of gender-based biases, throw that advice in the garbage and find your mentor based on the skills and attributes you are seeking.

Happy mentor hunting and happy International Women’s Day.