No one questions the value of female mentors for women in technology. Their career moves and personal perspective are needed to inspire and educate the relatively small number of women in the sector. But many women don’t realize that having a male mentor can be valuable, as well.
For close to a decade, the number of women in IT has stagnated, remaining at a quarter of the technology workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That compares to the nearly 50 percent women in the overall civilian workforce. According to Anandhi Bharadwaj, professor of information systems and operations management at Emory University, the number of men compared to women in tech makes it imperative that female IT professionals seek out male mentors.
Since men seem to move much more quickly from position to position than their female counterparts, women can benefit from the larger network that men can open up to them. “The first person to get passed over for a promotion or to be laid off is the one without the mentor and access to a strong and wide network,” Bharadwaj says. “You have to get both women and male mentors who can look out for you on the job. But they also need to help you be relevant and get you ready for the next promotion.”
A Different Perspective
Tapping into the wider network that male mentors can offer just makes sense, adds Ekaterina Walter, co-founder and CMO of BRANDERATI and author of The Wall Street Journal bestseller Think Like Zuck: The Five Business Secrets of Facebook’s Improbably Brilliant CEO Mark Zuckerberg. By tapping into that wider network, women get insight into how their male colleagues think and advance. “They know how to play the game, and they can help you navigate those waters and will tell you how other male executives think,” Walter explains.
Male mentors may also approach work in a different manner than their female counterparts. “While it’s not a blanket statement, men do have a different approach to problem solving,” Walters says. But she doesn’t discount the notion of having female mentors, as well. “Both agendas have amazing things to offer. It’s not a secret, but our minds sometimes work differently.”
Getting Beyond Stereotypes
Having male mentors also provides insight into how men perceive women in the workplace. Phyllis Kolmus, president of the advocacy group Women in Technology and deputy group director at AT&T Government Solutions, believes it’s wise to get beyond the stereotypes and understand the male point of view to overcome workplace prejudice. While that doesn’t mean that discrimination and bias don’t exist, the value of getting into the minds of your male colleagues shouldn’t be discounted. “You need female and male mentors,” she says. “All of the studies show that companies benefit from diversity, and people benefit from diversity, too. If you exclude half the population as mentors, you’ve lost a lot of that potential.”
What to Look for in a Mentor
Of course, a mentor’s gender may be less important than their approach and willingness to help junior colleagues. It’s always good to seek out someone who is a role model, even if that mentor is a man, Kolmus believes. “Look for someone who is doing what you want to be doing or working in a way that resonates with you,” she says. “You need someone you have good chemistry with.”
Male mentors also learn a ton from their women mentees. In the long run that, too, benefits women in tech. “There’s an unplanned benefit when you engage a male mentor,” says Kolmus. “You open their eyes when you share your experiences. Men can be biased and they don’t always realize it.”
“We’re not only learning from them,” she adds. “They’re learning from us. It can change the world for us.”