Men and Women are Different – Learning to Mentor across Genders

Crossing the Gulf
She was a bright, intelligent, spiritually attune and confident young woman.  I recognized in grading her homework that she had few intellectual peers in the class.  However, she rarely contributed to the discussion – this class in the United States was a homogeneous group of undergraduate men and women.  I relaxed assuming that my cultural assumptions were mirrored in my students – the last thing I anticipated was an education in how my gender assumptions affected the class.

I called on her one day in a class discussion and asked if she had something to contribute…I knew she did.  She had a better grasp on the subject than anyone in the class and was bright enough to extrapolate and synthesize the subject to other areas of her experience and knowledge.

As I turned her direction to call on her I noticed (in hindsight – it did not register at the time) that her eyes pleaded with me to pass her by.  I zeroed in on her and asked her to respond to the question.  It was only then I realized the non-verbal queues I had ignored as I worked toward the question.  When I called on her she expressed a look of betrayal and hurt.  Before I could respond to either of these observations she leapt from her seat and ran from the classroom crying!  I was stupefied.

I caught up with her as she sat in the commons and asked if I could join her.  She politely agreed and seemed to expect my question.  She explained to me that in all her school years she had minimized her intellectual capabilities because she had learned through being rejected and ostracized by both her male and female peers that standing out as an intellectual woman equated to social suicide.  In calling on her I had revealed her intellectual capacity.  Her sense of vulnerability and exposure eclipsed the affirmation of her ability I had intended to communicate.  I apologized to her and reminded myself to be mindful of the power I wielded in the narrow environment of the classroom.

That day it became clear to me that to be unaware of one’s own cultural and gender assumptions runs the risk of damaging mentees and not empowering them.  It was possible to inadvertently leave my mentees marginalized and irrelevant to their context.  Without attending to the complexities of mentoring these unexpected results derail the best intention of the mentor.

Mentoring is a relational process and it requires first that mentors be at ease in social interaction.  In mentoring someone who knows something (the mentor), transfers that something (empowerment and resources such as wisdom, advice, information, emotional support, protection, linking to resources, career guidance, status) to someone else (the mentee) at a sensitive time so that it impacts development.[1]  Mentoring results in other tertiary benefits such as reduced employee turnover, a more attractive organization from the perspective of employee recruitment and increased organizational learning (the precursor of sustainability in processes and success).[2]

However, mentoring is also a kind of sacred archetype, a capacity to illuminate a role of often-hidden yet rare power in the drama of human development.[3]  It is the archetypical nature of mentoring that makes it so potentially damaging or helpful especially in cross gender interactions. The act of mentoring may be assigned significance far beyond the mere exchange of ideas or skills.

The encounter I had with this talented student represents one of the many challenges in mentoring.  Is it possible to effective mentor across gender lines?  Is it proper?  It is a necessity in many organizations – yet it is often a challenging arrangement for both the mentor and the mentee.

The necessity is clear.  Consider the observations of Elizabeth McManus writing about women in law firms.  Her observations apply to many of the organizations I have worked in or with over the years.

The reality is that “[w]omen who are not mentored are in fact less likely to advance…. [f]emale lawyers remain out of the loop of career development.”  They aren’t adequately educated in the organization’s unstated practices and politics.  They aren’t given enough challenging, high visibility assignments.  They aren’t included in social events that yield professional opportunities.  And they aren’t helped to acquire the legal and marketing skills that are central to advancement. This exclusion results in a negative cycle, where women who do not advance are more likely to leave law firms and “[t]heir disproportionate attrition then reduces the pool of mentors for lawyers of similar background, and perpetuates the assumptions that perpetuate the problem.”    The fewer women who are mentored, the fewer of them there are to rise to the top to act as mentors to new women associates.[4]

The same thing can be said of female staff members in churches, non-profit organizations and businesses.  Cross gender mentoring is often the only way women find the opportunity to engage the larger organizational and strategic challenges they need to develop as leaders.  Too often the lack of capable female leaders with in organizations is not the result of insufficient talent and ability but insufficient opportunity and sponsorship.

The profound benefit of mentoring means that its application toward every potential leader is a desirable aim to increase organizational depth and effectiveness.  In light of this benefit in the business context the loss of mentoring relationships because leaders do not know how to mentor across gender is unacceptable.  In a faith-based context such as a church or Christian organization (my own reference point is limited to the Christian tradition by experience and training) the lack of cross gender mentoring relationships is even more appalling.  It is clear in Genesis that the imago Dei invested in humankind requires the inclusion of both male and female if it is to be complete and undistorted.  Conversely a bias to either male or female perspectives diminishes and distorts our insight into the nature and character of God.  Historically and contemporarily the Church has often failed to support the development of women preferring to stay predominately male in imagery, language and governance.  The loss of the Church’s ability to speak to today’s complex world is due in part to this distorting bias in my opinion.

Successful cross-gender mentoring requires two categories of understanding.  First, understand how to create a safe mentoring environment as a mentor or as a mentee.  A good structure ensures that both the mentor and mentee understand the expectations of the mentoring relationships and understand the boundaries that make the relationship safe.  Second, understand how women differ from men in how they develop as leaders.

Establish a Safe Mentoring Relationship

Admittedly views of how men and women should relate in the workplace differ from one generation to the next and from one culture to the next. Any guidelines I offer will not fit in every situation.  However, it is precisely this diversity that necessitates making the ground rules of mentoring explicit and not implicit.  It is the job of the mentor to create a safe environment.

Start by identifying the assumptions that limit the effectiveness of cross gender mentoring relationships.  Emerging generations perceive cross-gender relationships to be more common.  However, the down side is that their sexual relationships are more open and pervasive.  This openness however does not end the potential for great personal pain and the attending awkwardness of trying to work with an “EX” or of trying to reset a friendship violated by miscues about sexuality – as popular television dramas such as Suits, Harry’s Law and others illustrate routinely.   The potential of ruined reputation and eclipsed advancement opportunity due to poorly framed sexual relationships is as alive as ever. How do mentors establish proper boundaries and so avoid violating the trust of their organizations, their mentees, their families or their colleagues?  How do they communicate the necessity of these boundaries to emerging leaders so they do not undermine their own advancement by poor interpersonal choices?

Assumed stereotypical roles. Behavior defined by assumptions and expectations about cross-gender relationships may cut anxiety but may not give opportunity to practice the kinds of behaviors needed to enhance leadership ability and capacity.  Why?  Most stereo typical roles are family based or marriage based. Neither of these models fit the global context of leadership well. Hence if stereotypical roles are used to define the relationship, the role modeling of effective leadership will not be effective.  There is little chance of discovering what it means to be female in a male dominated culture or what it means to work with women as powerful and effective leaders if limited stereotypical roles dominate the nature of the relationship.

When discussing gender differences it is more profitable to speak about how men and women develop and not how they should behave.  For example men tend to speak and hear in the language of status and independence while women speak and hear in the language of connection and intimacy (intimacy does not have sexual connotations – a queue that is sometimes misinterpreted by men).  Knowing these differences allows a mentor to frame questions, provide assignments and sometimes protect their mentees so that the unique way in which the mentee maximizes learning.

Emotional entanglements.  While there is tremendous potential in growth in friendships and emotional ties because of the differences in viewpoints of the genders there is also the potential for co-dependency where one or the other of persons depends on the other in an unhealthy way for affirmation and approval. Avoid co-dependency by maintaining broad exposure to learning opportunities and challenging assignments so that the mentee’s sense of affirmation results from the outcomes of their new learning in practice.

The natural intimacy of the mentoring relationship may also lead to the experience of sexual tensions.  Sexual tension is normal and where it is held in perspective it can generate higher levels of creativity.  The problem with sexual tension is not its existence but the potential stress it places on interpreting the non-verbal queues in a mentoring relationship.  Make the guidance of your interaction explicit and be quick to express concern if a boundary is crossed by either person in the mentoring relationship.  The relational aspect of mentoring is under much more stress in a cross-gender relationship. Feelings and the affect are often much more in focus than the cognitive aspect of learning – so exercise awareness.  The last thing a good mentoring relationship needs is to collapse in the accusations of or fear of sexual harassment.

Sexual entanglements.  A safe mentoring environment requires clear boundaries in the relationship so that sexual tension does not give way to sexual involvement. If sexual involvement develops in a mentoring relationship it does so to the detriment of mentoring and role modeling. Care must be taken about physical contact and expression of or recognition of sexuality. Avoid fantasizing.  Because mentors are typically in a place of power organizationally sexual entanglements create a double jeopardy of poor personal judgment and legal liability.  The greater loss generated by inappropriate dalliances occur when illicit sexual activity affirms unproductive gender stereotypes or loss of trust in authority figures.  The loss of trust has far-reaching implications for the organization’s ability to act as a legitimate and credible institution.

Public scrutiny.  Because people see and check cross-gender mentoring relationships such relationships must be seen as above-board and exemplary. What others think, though perhaps inaccurate, carries weight in shaping reputations and in the end leadership effectiveness and career advancement.  Leaders have an important social stewardship here. I will never forget the day my wife returned from one of her first public speaking engagements in our early marriage.  She accepted an invitation to speak to youth at a church-sponsored camp.  The first reports she filed via phone calls indicated that she was extremely effective, competent and engaging.  I was proud and admittedly a bit jealous.  However, when she returned home devastated.  After being rated as one of the best speakers (she was also published as an author at that point – years before I published anything I might add) she was told that she would never be invited back.  She was too beautiful!  It was that terrifyingly blunt. The director of the camp was distraction by her from his own sense of sexual propriety.

Clearly the organizational leaders should have overruled the director and encouraged him to deal with his own issues.  He was later removed for having sex with one of the campers. However, my wife’s reputation was never revisited.  She remained a pariah for no other reason than that she was a successful young woman who was a clearly gifted communicator and leader.   The leader’s stewardship is to protect emerging leaders from the pettiness of jealous or insecure onlookers.[5]

Familial scrutiny. Cross-gender relationship may also be a threat to one’s spouse. If a leader’s time commitments show an out of balance preference for work over home then jealousy and mistrust typically arise because work and career demands might be seen as having more priority than the family and spouse relationship. Married mentors must stay conscious of the impact of cross-gender mentoring on his/her family. This is true too of married mentees. Mentors and mentees who are single often face social pressure to marry in some parts of a western culture.  I have seen this pressure taint mentoring relationships to the point the value of the relationship was lost.  The needs of career and family are unique and the leader must respond to both with proper presence and engagement.

Peer resentment. Be aware of the fact that others in the organization also want to advance.  Solo women are often hesitant to enter consistent mentoring relationships for fear that she will have to choose between advancement and her peer relationships with other women. The mentor may be completely unaware of the stress created by the peer resentment directed at the mentee.[6]

Leaders sometimes reduce these issues because they have little bearing on the work environment in their minds. I suggest that leaders reduce these issues at their own peril. Ignoring social dynamics does not work out well in any workplace – this is especially true in a cross-cultural context in which social signals and assumptions may not be as easily accessed as in one’s own cultural context.

Understand Women Learn Differently

I assumed that my primarily male approach to learning i.e., competitive, disconnected from the subjective, complex and contextual was universal.  Instead I began to see that the young coed in my story viewed learning based on connectedness and community.  To her learning was intimately connected to the subjective – she wanted to know what others felt and experienced as part of the context of knowing. She worked in a collaborative environment to meet everyone’s needs and discover new ideas.  The way men and women approach learning and the way they develop is different.[7]

Men and women learn best when they are involved in diagnosing, planning, implementing and evaluating their learning – involve your mentees in self-evaluation (this is a central aspect of spiritual growth).  However men and women use different ways of knowing.[8]  The phases of growth men and women move through as they develop share commonalities in many ways and are much different in others. Men tend to develop a sense of morality around rights evoking the imagery of “blind justice” that relies on abstract laws and universal principles to mediate conflict or disputes.[9]

Women develop a morality of care and responsibility. Instead of pressing for blind impartiality women argue for understanding the context noting that the needs of the person cannot always be deduced from general rules.[10] Role of the mentor is to create and keep up a supportive environment that promotes conditions necessary for learning – this underscores the significance of defining the relationship clearly and of those mentor types (e.g., sponsorship) that work to protect the learning of the mentee. (See more at and If the mentor refuses to engage this way of knowing when working with women the reciprocal benefit of the mentoring relationship is lost.

So what are the phases of development suggested by Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger and Tarule? What is their significance in mentoring women?

Silence: extreme denial of self-dependent on external authority for direction.

Catalyst: socialization characterized by social, economic, and educational deprivation. These women grow up in repressive contexts where they have no voice whatsoever.  These women develop language skills but do not cultivate capacity for representational thought.

These women lack confidence in their own ability to learn – even from their own experience – the capacity they do express is limited to immediate events versus past or future; to actual versus metaphorical or imaginary; concrete versus deduced or induced; specific versus generalize or contextual iced; to behaviors actually enacted versus values or motives. They feel passive, reactive and dependent thus assume blind obedience as a way to survive. They also hold extreme sex roles. Thinking for themselves violates their concept of what is proper – they experience a sense of extreme isolation.

Clearly a women in this phase of development is not a candidate for a leadership role however, mentors in business often engage these women in entry-level jobs and find training them is sometimes challenging. The simple act of learning to successfully execute a job can be a tremendous catalyst to growth.  Mentoring functions such as friendship, coaching, role modeling can be especially helpful in developing these women’s potential in the work place or service roles in church organizations.[11]

Received knowledge: listening to the voices of others.

Catalyst: parenthood is often a catalyst to this shift if a woman was not already in this phase of development.

Women in this phase highly value words and learn by listening – they hear in concrete and dualistic ways i.e., right and wrong without room for ambiguity – the idea of paradox is inconceivable the assumption being that contradictory ideas are a clear contradiction of fact. Hence greater weight is given the quantitative over against the qualitative.  Women in this phase rely on authority and the belief that there is only one truth. This perspective leaves women in this phase maladaptive for the complex and rapidly changing, pluralistic society we face today. When mentoring these women work toward providing clear guidelines on what is acceptable and unacceptable as well as how to handle ambiguous situations. Don’t expect them to make decisions where there is no clearly defined right answer. Be aware of the fact that women hold an either or perspective on truth they often worry that to develop their own powers is at the cost of others hence they hesitate to consider development seriously. Mentoring functions such as counseling, coaching, teaching, acceptance-confirmation and divine contact make a significant impact.

Subjective knowledge: the inner voice emerges often to the exclusion of other voices; it is the quest for self.

Catalyst: redefinition and application of new ways of knowing and learning.  Note: the shift toward this phase is often rooted in some crisis of trust in male authority must often based on sexual abuse or harassment (20-35% of women interviewed by Belenky et al experienced some form of sexual abuse or harassment).

This shift is a major developmental transition with repercussions on relationships, self-concept, self-esteem, self-assertion, and self-definition – it is a move toward greater autonomy and independence. Women approach this phase cautiously often feeling exhilaration and fear because taking this stand means taking a stand for herself that may leave her isolated from her social support leaving her feeling extremely lonely.

Subjectivist women distrust logic, analysis, abstraction, and language.  Following the discovery of personal authority is a reassessment of life circumstances and attributes (and whether these fit with a new sense of personal authority). Characteristically women redefined relationships around the quest to amass personal experience apart from the obligations (restrictions) of their past – courage and in some cases recklessness characterize this quest.

The dominant learning mode is one of inward listening and watching.  The end of this phase is characterized both in the discovery of one’s own voice and of the necessity of understanding others whose lives impinge on personal experience.  Mentoring relationships, especially cross-gender relationships may be tested in this phase for reliability and safety.  Maintaining a safe environment is critical.  Friendship and role modeling are critical in this phase.  A spiritual guide is particularly important in this phase as the person defines their sense of self and community in new ways.

Procedural knowledge – the voice of reason: procedural knowledge is characterized by an emphasis on rules, skills, and techniques inherent in analytical thinking.

Catalyst: it is inconclusive what leads to this development in some women while others do not enter this phase. It may be exposure to authority that is benign in a dictatorial sense while also knowledgeable.

The reasoning of this phase is more complex than what occurs in received or subjective knowledge. At this point in development a woman only exercises the capacity for independent thought i.e., outside the strictures of procedure, only at the request of authorities.  Mentoring in this phase of learning should include challenging assignments, acceptance-confirmation, coaching and training.

Procedural knowledge – separate and connected knowing: this phase is more than separation from and mastery over objects it infers (like the Greek word gnosis) intimacy and equality between self and object – implying personal acquaintance with an object.

Catalyst: this phase emerges from the need to understand the opinions of other people – particularly opinions that are personally obscure or alien.

Women in this phase develop a deep emotional intelligence. Whereas the separate self of the previous phase seeks reciprocity in relationships (considers others as it wishes to be considered) the connected self seeks to respond to others in their terms.  This phase builds on the subjectivist conviction that the most trustworthy knowledge is personal experience versus pronouncements of authorities – the emphasis in this phase is the development of rules (effective personal processes) to gain access to the knowledge of others. The procedures effect is to get out from behind one’s own eyes to adopt a different lens and see the world through the eyes of another.

The emphasis in the phase remains the procedure although those rules remain somewhat intuitive i.e., not fully codified by the person who is still experimenting and refining their approach.  Mentoring can focus on sponsorship, exposure and visibility as well as coaching, friendship, counseling and spiritual guide.

The conclusion to procedural knowing is that women who stay in these phases cannot be truly radical because their thinking is encapsulated within systems – they critique only within the standards of the system itself. Therefore mentoring that helps them see outside the system is helpful including such functions as protection, coaching, historical models and spiritual guide.

Constructed knowledge – integrating the voices: constructed knowledge is characterized in a sense of self-awareness i.e., of judgments, thought, moods, and desires.  Constructed knowledge begins as a quest to reclaim a sense of self by integrating intuitive knowledge with knowledge learned from others.

Catalyst: an attempt in this phase of development to integrate the fragmentation of self into the process of knowing. With this comes a larger ability to hold apparently contradictory insights in tension.

This phase of development takes the context of knowing seriously and recognizes that all knowledge is constructed and truth is a matter of the context in which it is embedded.  In other words the ability to know reality is partial limited and in need of humility and not arrogant and absolute assertion – compare the functions of propositional versus dialogical truth. c.f., 1 Corinthians 13.  Belenky et al offer an important insight for mentors;

In didactic talk, each participant may report experience, but there is no attempt among participants to join to arrive at some new understanding. “Really talking” requires careful listening; it implies a mutually shared agreement that together you are creating the best setting so that half-backed or emergent ideas can grow. “Real talk” reaches deep into the experience of each participant; it also draws on the analytical abilities of each.[12]

The moral decision-making of constructivist thinking seeks to understand conflict in the context of each person’s; needs, perspectives, and goals and not invoking a hierarchy of abstract principles. This does not imply that abstract principles are not considered but that an attempt is made to apply or contextualize these so that conflict ends in a win/win where ever possible.  Mentors should pay special attention to providing challenging assignments, sponsorship, protection and coaching as well as exposure and visibility.

In using this information as a mentoring guide it is important to note that the research did not set up but rather implied a development path through these phases.   Passage through theses phases of development is not linear rather people can retreat or temporize these phases.  It is significant that these phases are not age driven but circumstantially driven.   This is a significant insight for mentors working to create developmental environments in their organizations

Reinforce the Relationship with Clear Definition

It is important to define the nature of the relationship that you expect to have with your mentor or mentee.

Table 1: Define the Expectations[13]

Time Our meetings begin and end on timeWe will manage our time well and use agendas to keep us on trackWe will put interruptions asideWe will meet for a specific period then reassess how we are doing
Feedback We make regular feedback an expectation
Role Expectations Each of us actively participates in the relationshipWe will each keep a mentoring journal to reflect on our experiencesWe will honor each other’s expertise and experience
Communication Our communication is open, candid and directWe will respect our differences and learn from them
Stumbling blocks If we come up against a stumbling block, we will address it immediately and not wait until the next meeting
Confidentiality What does confidentiality mean in this relationship?What talk stays between the mentor and mentee?  What can be shared with others?What permissions must be gained before talking with anyone outside the mentoring relationship?
Closure When we have completed this mentoring cycle or in the event that our relationship doesn’t work out, we will have a closure conversation and use it as a learning opportunity.

Communicate Violations of your Boundaries

Putting a structure to mentoring relationships is only part of creating a safe and healthy relationship. The other part is feedback in the relationship in what I call formal and informal feedback.  Formal feedback consists of the direct purpose of the mentoring relationship e.g., skill acquisition, challenging assignments etc.  Informal feedback consists of the honesty and integrity of the interpersonal communication. Structure and formal feedback is important to make sure that the relationship possesses clear learning outcomes. However, structure and formal feedback does not end the potential for misunderstanding in relationship.  Therefore it is important to show how to discuss violations of the relationship.  What happens if the mentee or mentor violates the agreed upon boundaries?[14]  Informal feedback (as a mentor or mentee) when a boundary is violated needs to include the following:

  1. Let your mentoring partner know that he/she has crossed a boundary.
  2. Refer to the ground rules outlined in the mentoring agreement
  3. Describe the behaviors that clearly show how the boundary was crossed.
  4. Request that the behaviors stop
  5. If you mentoring partner acknowledges she/he crossed a boundary, let her/him know you appreciate the understanding
  6. If boundaries go unacknowledged and continue to be crossed, ask your mentoring partner to stop crossing the line.  If the behavior continues, insist that it be stopped.  And, if that fails, walk away from the relationship.


Mentoring across the gender divide possesses certain risks and yields significant insight not just in a theological or philosophical sense but in plain marketing and business sense as well. Companies who consistently develop women as well as men increase profitability and return on equity and return on invested capital.[15]

Thanks to my student that day in the classroom I am more attune to the skills and insights I need to develop the leaders emerging around me. How about you?

[1] J. Robert Clinton and Richard W. Clinton. The Mentor Handbook: Detailed Guidelines and Helps for Christian Mentors and Mentoree. (Pasadena, CA: Barnabas Press, 1991), 2-5.

[2] Tammy D. Allen, Lisa M. Finkelstein and Mark L. Poteet. Designing Workplace Mentoring Programs: An Evidence-Based Approach(Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. Kindle Edition, 2009).

[3] Laurent A. Daloz. Mentor: Guiding the Journey of Adult Learners (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1999), xxiv.

[4] Elizabeth K. McManus. “Intimidation and the Culture of Avoidance: Gender Issues and Mentoring in Law Firm Practice” in Fordham Urban Law Journal (Volume 33, Issue 1, Article 7, 2005), 100-14.

[5] To my point about the inability of the church to engage current issues with vitality – my wife changed careers and has had a marvelously successful career as a financial planner to her clients great gain and the church’s great loss.  Her story is repeated in many of my female theology students who find that opportunities to serve are grossly restricted to stereotypical roles ill-suited to either their gifts or the needs of local communities.

[6] I find it very helpful to read blogs that give me an ongoing insight into the issues the emerging generation faces.  One particularly well written blog can be found at

[7] Mary Field Belenky, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger and Jill Mattuck Tarule. Women’s Ways of Knowing: the Development of Self, Voice, and Mind (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1997).

[8] Zachary, 513 of 6664.

[9] Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger and Tarule, 8.

[10] Ibid, 8.

[12] Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger and Tarule, 144.

[13] Zachary, 3579 of 6664

[14] Zachary, 3710 of 6664

[15] A number of studies look at the corporate context and emerging women leaders and their impact on business results. See for more information.

2 Replies to “Men and Women are Different – Learning to Mentor across Genders”

  1. WOW, Ray… this is an incredible, wisdom -packed blog! The elements to consider for creating a safe mentor environment are very helpful. I plan to study further the developmental phases – I had never heard of them before … I am very honored that you mentioned my blog post. Thank you for being a mentor in my life. I appreciate you!

  2. WOW, Ray… this is an incredible, wisdom -packed blog! The elements to consider for creating a safe mentor environment are very helpful. I plan to study further the developmental phases – I had never heard of them before … I am very honored that you mentioned my blog post. Thank you for being a mentor in my life. I appreciate you!

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