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Can Business Women find Mentors?

Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In is perhaps the best book I’ve read all year. It’s certainly the best non-fiction book I’ve read in many years. The primary reason Lean In has impacted me so greatly is simple: Since I work in technology, I work with similar male/female ratios to Sandberg. Her suggestions of how to stop treating myself as second best rang extraordinarily true, and I have already begun implementing many of her ideas.

But one chapter particularly struck me. Chapter 3, “Are you my mentor?” discussed how mentoring relationships are valuable, or even necessary, for anyone hoping to move up within a company. She says that men are far more likely to be chosen as mentees than women, and details some of the reasons why – predominantly, that women wait to be asked for help, where men tend to push forward. Adding to the challenge for women, those who do push forward are often seen as “aggressive” or unlikable, where their male counterparts are viewed positively, as strong, or “taking charge.”

“Women who excel will find mentors who push them to the top,” – Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In

I have a theory, and Sandberg’s breakdown of male and female stereotypes supports it. Perhaps, since men are often stereotyped as independent and strong, where women are expected to ask for help or hold back, men who seek mentors stand out. A man looking for help from a mentor is certainly more unique than a woman looking for help – perhaps this signifies that a man asking for aid has something special, something different around him. Perhaps equally, this is why women who stand out are the women who are strong and independent, and therefore although they are more noticeable, they are also less likely to accept help from a mentor.

Recognizing the problem brings us halfway there, but creating a solution is also difficult. For more women to succeed in business (assuming there are qualified and interested women – which all studies show there are), how can they stand out from the crowd and yet also accept – or even ask for – a mentor’s help?

How can we bridge these two seeming contradictions?

Marli Mesibov

Marli is a content strategist with a passion for the user experience. Her work spans websites, web applications, and mobile. Marli is the VP of Content Strategy at the UX design agency Mad*Pow, and she serves as managing editor at UX Booth, a publication about all areas of user experience. Marli is a frequent conference speaker, and has spoken at conferences including Content Strategy Forum and LavaCon. She can also be found on Twitter, where she shares thoughts on content strategy, literature, and Muppets.

2 Comments

  1. Why does the mentor need to be within a company? My company is not big, I don’t see many possibilities for mentors here (only one, really). If someone either doesn’t have in-company possibilities, or feels more comfortable for any reason (including those you state), why not look outside? I see more and more groups (primarily women’s groups) trying to get more mentoring relationships going. This is great, but men need to be involved too. I do believe Sheryl also talked about how having a male sponsor (or mentor) can help a woman even more. All in all, men need to be part of this conversation for anything to change.

    • Fair point! I don’t believe the mrntor needs to be within the company (I certainly hope not, as I work for a company of one). But I believe the issue holds true outside of companies as well – for male and female mentors, they look for mentees who stand out and excel, to quote another point from later in the chapter: “We need to stop telling them, ‘Get a mentor and you will excel.’ Instead we need to tell them, ‘Excel and you will get a mentor.’”

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