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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