Why is it so hard to find a female mentor?

In the last week, I have had three conversations with three different women who shared a common frustration. All three were desirous of a female mentor from within their company, and all three were unable to find one.

Why is this?

The stories all three women shared were eerily similar. The problem is not what some might immediately suspect. It was not a problem of finding a senior woman in their company. They each had tried to reach several different women.

The problem all three women reported was the inability to get onto the calendars of any of the senior women in their companies. Sometimes they could get an initial meeting, but even these were often rescheduled several times before taking place. Follow-up meetings were nearly impossible to come by.

Again I ask, why is this?

Collectively, we had a few guesses as to why this would be. We had all been in positions of leadership. As such, we had all confronted the conflict of a full calendar and a team that needed guidance and input. We are all busy – both men and women. Here are some theories on what might be going on.

Senior leadership is a tough job in and of itself

Senior leaders, regardless of their gender, are often consumed by meetings, conference calls, updates, presentations, and more meetings. It is possible that there just isn’t time for them to mentor younger leaders, given their jobs.

Successful women are busier than others

Women are good at getting things done. As the saying goes, if you want something done, ask a busy person. So, logically, successful women are going to be asked to do more things.

Add to this the fact that women have a hard time saying no. Oftentimes, the reason we have reached a certain level of leadership is because we never said no on the way up. Challenging assignments, lateral moves, whatever it was, women say yes.

You want that done tomorrow? No problem. You want that completely rewritten? Sure! Now? Of course! You want me to reorganize the entire department and increase revenues by 200% by next quarter? You got it!

In fact, I had a senior leader at my company that preached that the only way to get ahead was to always say yes. You can bet the women took that to heart.

Because of their skill and their willingness to take on more and more, successful women’s plates are filled fuller than most. If you think about it, it makes sense. The more you do right, the more the company is going to want you to handle. And if we never say no, there is very little space left for things not on the agenda, like employee development. Especially those requests for development from women in other areas of the company or other companies.

As is often said, there are only so many hours in the day and sometimes we run out of them.

There just aren’t enough of them

Despite the fact that there are women in senior leadership, it is possible that there just are not enough of them. How many junior associates can one senior leader feasibly mentor?

And if the first theory is true, that senior leaders in general do not have time to mentor, this becomes even more problematic.

It could also be a problem that the senior women work in a different division/section/ department of the company than the women seeking mentors. It can be a challenge to reach out across these lines to make a mentorship relationship work. That senior leader is likely going to spend any time she has for employee development on those employees working under her span of control.

There is no tangible incentive to mentor other women

I list this here because I have heard employees mention this as a potential reason they cannot seem to meet with a mentor. It is largely true that it is very difficult to quantify the value of investing in young women leaders. I have never seen an executive incentive plan that listed ‘mentorship’ as a goal (I’m sure they exist somewhere – I just think it is exceedingly rare).

That said, I believe most of us want to mentor other women. We want to impact their lives in positive ways, help them navigate the corporate world, help them to be successful and reach their dreams. But we work for corporations, and corporations set the priorities.

So what do you do if you are looking for that mentor and she just doesn’t seem to have time for you?

The best suggestion I have is to do what the guys do – find an informal way to connect. Swing by her office, talk to her briefly after a meeting, attend a company function. Don’t be a pest, but find ways to connect that don’t require her to block 30 precious minutes on her calendar.

And if you get that meeting, be prepared! Have specific questions to ask or situations to get her input on. Do not waste that precious time! Follow-up with a thank you and ask for the next meeting right away. Better yet, ask her if you can work with her assistant to put regular (quarterly, perhaps) meetings on her calendar.

I appreciate your thoughts! Have you tried to engage a female mentor? How hard was it to find one and to meet with one? What advice do you have for others looking to do the same?

Good luck! As always, stay positive!

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“You’re so strong!” and other ways we talk to our kids

A recent Walk-a-Thon at a local school

Recently I have been working in our public schools. Most of the time I am in primary schools. I love these kids – they are all trying to do their best, learn the rules, and understand where they fit in this world. Hard work!

It is especially tough when they also have to learn their multiplication tables, how to write an essay comparing and contrasting diverse topics, and the history of our country. I don’t know if you remember this time in your life, but this is a lot for kids to handle all at once.

Being around all these kids and all of this potential, I became curious. As many of you may know, my big question is why women are not reaching the same levels in corporate America as men. I wondered if there was anything I could see at this young age that could help to answer the question.

I also did some reading. It turns out that we start conditioning our children for their gender roles at a very young age. In fact, the minute they are born they start receiving messages about the “appropriate” way to act.

There are studies that show that we talk to babies differently the moment we become aware of their assigned gender. For example, an active baby in utero, when known to be a boy, is described as “active” or a “future sports star.” In contrast, we refer to female babies in emotional terms, saying things like “she must be upset” or “she’s feisty today!” And just to be clear, this is a generalization. This is not always the case, but it is generally the case.

This gendered talk continues throughout life. As young children, we talk more to our daughters than we do to our sons. We teach girls that showing emotion is okay, and our son’s that it is not. We caution our girls to be more careful, and tell our boys how strong they are. This ‘conditioning’ continues throughout their lives, often in small, subtle ways.

One day, while working with a group of clever first-graders, I happened upon an interesting and telling situation. I held up a picture that looked something like this:

I asked the kids, “What is this?” The answers, predictably, were almost a unanimous “Man.” The answer in the teacher’s manual agreed with them. I tried to get the students to give me other answers, but about the only other thing they came up with was “boy.”

The next picture looked like this:

And the kids shouted out before I could even ask them, “Mom!” This time the teacher’s manual disagreed (they were looking for the word ‘woman’). No matter what kind of prompting I gave them, the kids continued to insist that the only word for this person was “Mom.”

So already at this young age, we are conditioned to see gender roles. We see men as simply ‘men’ and women are assigned the role of ‘mother.’ Now, this could be just the case in this one class, in this one school, on this one particular day, but I don’t think so. I think this would likely happen over and over again in classrooms across the country – possibly around the world.

Here is something else I got curious about. When do we start making gendered choices about our career paths? I started asking every kid I could, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Here are some of the most common answers I got from the boys:

  • Policeman – grades 2,4,5
  • Fireman – grades 1,2,4
  • Duck – grade 2 (okay, this wasn’t common, but was super cute)
  • Engineer – grade 5
  • NFL Player – grades 4, 5
  • Soccer Player – grades 3, 4, 5
  • NBA Player – grade 5

Here are the most common answers I got from the girls:

  • Unicorn – grades 1, 2 (surprisingly common!)
  • Veterinarian – grade 2, 3, 4, 5
  • Lawyer – grades 4, 5
  • Mermaid – grades 2, 3
  • Shopper – grades 1, 2
  • Teacher – grades 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
  • Nurse – grade 5

This is clearly a completely unscientific sample. I offer it only as a potential insight into how early some of these ideas take shape. We tell our daughters “You can be anything you want!” Then day after day we present the idea that they should be caretakers and nurturers. We say “Reach for the stars!” while simultaneously cautioning them to be careful, to be polite, to smile.

We tell them we love them inside and out, that they are beautiful regardless of how they look (and we mean it!) but then day after day, we bombard them with ideas about their weight, their demeanor, their skin, their clothes, their smile.

We do our boys similar injustices. We need more male teachers, nurses, and unicorns. We need to teach them that it is okay to show emotions, and that violence is not the answer to everything. Or anything. Again, every day we tell them, “You can be anything you want!” while chastizing them for showing compassion or empathy.

I don’t have any answers for this. I don’t know how to fix this except to encourage everyone to think about the way you talk to children. Consider whether your well-intentioned comments and corrections might be limiting the childs future dreams and ambitions.

And as always, stay positive!