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Female Students Gravitate to Female Mentors When Other Info Is Scarce

When creating mentorship programs, understand what qualities mentees value in a mentor

Two women talking at a table in an office.

​It's common to match mentees with mentors who share similar traits—such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or nationality—but a new report suggests a mentor's friendliness and approachability, knowledge about job opportunities, and personalized advice are more important to female students than gender.

Female mentees disproportionately reach out to female mentors when other information about the potential mentor is scarce. But when other, positive information about a potential mentor is available, the preference for a female mentor goes away.

The findings are from a recent academic study from Yana Gallen, assistant professor at the University of Chicago's Harris School of Public Policy, and Melanie Wasserman, assistant professor at UCLA's Anderson School of Management.

"[They] are not willing to trade off any dimension of mentor quality in order to access a female mentor," Gallen and Wasserman wrote in the report. "Encouraging matching [mentees and mentors] based on shared traits could be less efficient than providing information about the characteristics individuals actually value." 

[SHRM members-only resource: Creating a Mentor Program

While well-intentioned, organizations that continually ask female employees to handle a lot of mentoring can inadvertently slow their career progression because women can end up spending all of their time on tasks other than what they were hired for, Gallen told SHRM Online.

A LinkedIn news article reported a similar sentiment, noting that "members of underrepresented groups … are often over-solicited already. Those who have succeeded by mainstream standards are wanted to champion diversity, to act as role models, to give speeches, to sponsor groups. If they are also asked to mentor other minorities, then the pressure mounts even more."

Gallen advised employers to understand the "why" behind mentees' choices in mentors.

"Understand what the source of people's [mentor] preferences are and what they're looking for from mentors before designing the [mentorship] program," she said. Sometimes, the patterns seen in mentorship pairings don't reflect the reasons behind those patterns, she noted.

Gallen and Wasserman's study also found first-generation college students strongly preferred mentors who had been first-generation students, and their preference did not waver in the face of background information on other potential mentors, such as approachability or knowledge of job opportunities, Gallen said.

In general, the National Association of Colleges and Employers has found that a majority of first-generation college students are white (49 percent). The second-largest population is Hispanic (27 percent).

In conducting their research, Gallen and Wasserman first established that students seek out alumni like themselves by studying data from an existing online platform designed as a portal for students looking for mentorship, career guidance and professional connections. The bulk of the research focused on studying student responses to hypothetical alumni profiles that Gallen and Wasserman had created.  

Other SHRM resources:
Authors Offer Advice on Creating a Mentoring Program, SHRM Online, February 2022
Creating a Mentoring Program: Yodas Not RequiredSHRM Online, March 2020
The Mentoring Guide: Helping Mentors and Mentees Succeed, SHRMStore


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