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Why Male Leaders Should Mentor Women

Elevating women to leadership positions makes good business sense. But they need men's support to advance.

An illustration of a woman looking through a telescope.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, men and women have found it increasingly difficult to trust each other in the workplace. One outcome is that men have become reluctant to mentor women for fear of being falsely accused of sexual harassment.

In fact, 60 percent of male managers are uncomfortable participating in a common work activity with a woman, such as mentoring, working alone or socializing together—14 percentage points higher than one year ago—according to 2019 survey results from The survey also found that 1 in 6 men are reluctant to mentor a woman. 

As a result, it’s becoming harder for women to find high-powered male mentors and sponsors who can help them climb the career ladder.

“Women were already not getting enough sponsorship,” says Rachel Thomas, co-founder and chief executive officer of

Aside from the equity issue, the lack of mentoring opportunities for women means that organizations—and male leaders themselves—are losing out. Companies with gender diversity at the top are more successful overall, studies by McKinsey & Co. and others show.

Why Mentors Matter

Companies have long recognized that mentorship and sponsorship are essential to help female employees get ahead. Studies by Catalyst and Harvard Business Review have shown that women who have sponsors are more likely to advance in their careers. A recent study by PayScale found that women who have a sponsor are paid 10 percent more than women without one. 

Yet many male executives don’t realize that by declining to work one-on-one with women, they’re perpetuating the glass ceiling and gender pay disparity. 

“Not harassing women is not enough,” Thomas says. “Being part of the solution means mentoring, sponsoring and working one-on-one with women.”

 A recent survey of 400 men by Fairygodboss found that 87.5 percent want to help women advance their careers, but 56 percent aren’t sure how to help. In fact, 49 percent want their female colleagues to tell them how to be a better ally. 

‘Not harassing women is not enough. Being part of the solution means mentoring, sponsoring and working one-on-one with women.’
Rachel Thomas  

To help ease these tensions, companies are finding ways to encourage men to mentor more women. For instance, Dell Technologies adapted its diversity and inclusion training as a result of the #MeToo movement to help men understand what it means to be in a position of power. 

“Addressing power in the workplace is the key to ending these misconceptions,” says Erik Day, Dell Technologies’ vice president of small business and a facilitator for the company’s Many Advocating Real Change (MARC) program. Dell recently changed the name of its program, which was originally created by Catalyst, from Men Advocating Real Change. The renaming was meant to encourage all employees, not just men, to look for solutions. 

“We’re trying to peel back the biases we have and build an environment where people feel comfortable to have these conversations,” says Richard Lopez, the program’s director.

One way to ensure that men and women are getting equal support and guidance is to ask senior managers to list the employees they’re mentoring and sponsoring, and then determine if they’re mentoring an equal number of men, women and people of color, says Alexis Krivkovich, a managing partner for McKinsey’s Silicon Valley office and a co-author of the 2019 Women in the Workplace study by McKinsey & Co. and If mostly men are being mentored, HR can provide senior leaders with a list of additional employees who would like a mentor. 

“You aren’t assigning sponsors and mentors,” Krivkovich says, but rather “shining a light” on the inequity.

Men who do mentor women often find that they have increased access to information and broader networks in their own organization, especially if they mentor someone outside their functional business unit, says David Smith, co-author of Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women (Bibliomotion, 2016). Mentoring is also a good way to learn about someone else’s workplace experience, he says. 

Practical Tips

Mentoring is a public act and should be done at a time and place that’s comfortable for everyone. Mentors should ask all of their mentees, regardless of gender, “What times work for you? Where would you feel the most comfortable having these conversations?” 

Here are some other guidelines that men and women in mentoring relationships should keep in mind: 

Be transparent. Schedule mentorship meetings on your public calendar and meet in public places during work hours, not in a bar or over dinner, Smith says.

Be consistent. Impose the same rules on male and female mentees, and be consistent in the questions you ask, the advice you give and the help you offer, Thomas says. Rather than chat about last night’s football game, ask what project is most important to them. Find out what their five-year goal is and what they’ve learned from past mistakes and failures.

Acknowledge differences. If you’re a male mentor, make it clear that you realize the experiences of female colleagues are different from your own and that their paths to advancement might be different from yours, says Jon Rambeau, vice president and general manager at Lockheed Martin. While it may be initially uncomfortable to ask these questions, he says he has learned much from inviting the women he mentors to tell him about their experiences at the company, how much harder they have had to work and what changes they have had to make to fit in.

Mentor in bite-size chunks. Mentoring doesn’t need to be a long-term relationship. “Some individuals tend to put too much weight into establishing deep, deep relationships,” says Jeremy Ford, Dell’s vice president of giving and social innovation and a MARC facilitator. Instead, find someone with a skill or an experience you want to learn more about, and ask if you can talk about it during a one-hour mentoring session. 

Create mentoring circles. Mentoring doesn’t have to occur one-on-one. Encourage small cohorts of three to six peers, both men and women, to mentor each other under the guidance of a senior manager, who can model relationship building for younger colleagues, says Wendy Murphy, an associate professor of management at Babson College and author of Strategic Relationships at Work (McGraw-Hill, 2014).

Work on a project together. Don’t just rely on having a freewheeling conversation, says Tom Kosnik, a partner with FounderX Ventures. Come up with a tangible project you can work on whenever you get together. It could be something related to work or a volunteer project. 

Use technology. Consider meeting via Skype, FaceTime or Google Hangouts instead of in person, says Christy Wyatt, chief executive officer at Absolute Software. When Wyatt was younger, she often felt pressured into meeting her mentor for dinner. She now realizes that she could have easily said dinner didn’t work for her so that her mentor would have had to come up with an alternative meeting place.  

Lisa Rabasca Roepe is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area. 

Illustration by Michael Morgenstern.


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