Join the Conversation:  As Women, Should We Ask for Male Mentors?

Two weeks into being an associate at my big law firm, I was asked if I knew who I wanted my mentor to be.  Did I want a partner or an associate?  Did I want somebody in my practice group or not?  Did I want somebody of my own gender or race or not?  I debated these questions in my head.  I ended up requesting a mentor of the same gender and race as me.  But looking back, was that the wisest choice?

If you google “how to pick the right mentor for young women lawyers,” you’ll find a few articles on the American Bar Association’s website encouraging young women lawyers to seek out male mentors in addition to female mentors.  Common reasons include learning the perspective of male lawyers, assimilating to the status quo, the bigger pool of male partners compared to female partners, and the occasional tendency among women to harbor competitive or negative feelings against other women

Recently, I came across an article that adds to and complicates this dialogue using interaction network theories and research.  Herminia Ibarra’s “Personal Networks of Women and Minorities in Management:  A Conceptual Framework” explains why women and racial minorities have it harder than white men when it comes to building networks that satisfy both instrumental and expressive needs.  Ibarra shows us that when pursuing mentoring relationships, women and racial minorities often need to make trade-offs between professional value and social support while white men do not.  Consequently, women and racial minorities need to work harder and develop a greater number of relationships to achieve the same network efficacy as their white male counterparts.  

Ibarra starts by explaining that network relationships can have an instrumental function, expressive function, or both.  Instrumental functions include the exchange of information, expertise, professional advice, political access, and other job-related resources.  Expressive functions involve the exchange of friendship and social support.  Expressive relationships tend to be closer and more intimate than purely instrumental relationships.  But many network relationships, such as mentor-protégé relationships, are both instrumental and expressive in that they provide both career opportunities and psychosocial support. 

Ibarra’s central thesis is that for women and racial minorities, expressive relationships are less likely to provide instrumental benefits and instrumental relationships are less likely to provide expressive benefits – since people gravitate toward others of the same gender and race for expressive benefits and women and racial minorities are disproportionately located in lower echelons and lower status groups.  As a result, in corporate America, women and racial minorities often cannot rely on the same relationships for expressive and instrumental functions whereas white men usually can. 

For women, the major trade-off of seeking mentoring relationships with men is that expressive bonds are likely harder to form (e.g. more frequent misunderstandings), which leads to weaker and consequently less useful relationships.  At the same time, the major trade-off of seeking mentoring relationships with other women is that they tend to have less access to people in positions of power and their network contacts tend to have lower positional power than men’s.  A further trade-off of building mentoring relationships with women is greater risk of network disruption – women have a higher rate of career interruptions and leave corporate America at higher rates. 

In addition, the article infers based on some research evidence that to compensate for the inability to rely on the same network for expressive and instrumental benefits, women often develop a functionally differentiated network – they navigate between two social circles.  But managing two social structures has its own trade-offs:  it is more time-consuming and conducive to higher stress levels. 

Ibarra’s conclusions are intuitive, but I haven’t fully grappled with their consequences before.  When building mentoring relationships, women and racial minorities often have to choose between professional usefulness and social support in a way that white men do not.  McKinsey and LeanIn.Org’s Women in the Workplace 2016 study suggests that Ibarra's 1993 article remains applicable today – for women, building same-sex networks, which are often associated with stronger social support, is negatively correlated with instrumental access:   

Women report fewer substantive interactions with senior leaders than their male counterparts do – and this gap widens as women and men advance.  In the same vein, women are less likely to say that a senior leader outside their direct management chain has helped them get a promotion or challenging new assignment.  This disparity may be caused – or even compounded – by differences in women’s and men’s professional networks.  Women are three times more likely to rely on a network that is mostly female.  Because men typically hold more senior-level positions, this means women are less likely to get access to people with the clout to open doors for them.

Maybe there is no right answer to whether we as women should ask for male mentors.  There’s only trade-offs – trade-offs we shouldn’t have to make.  But we need to realize these disadvantages that women and racial minorities face when it comes to building networks and mentoring relationships in order to make a conscious decision about whether we want to tackle these disadvantages, whether we want to ensure a diversity of mentors for women and minority associates, and whether we want to ask for male mentors the next time we are asked, “Do you know who you want your mentor to be?”

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