Mentors, or Just Nurturers? How Women Are Hurting Themselves and Not Realizing It

October 09, 2014

Mentors, or Just Nurturers?

I once observed a situation in which an individual (we’ll call him “Bob”) asked two of his colleagues for advice on how to solve a problem in a project he was working on. One was male (“George”), and one was female (“Liz”). Bob went to Liz for advice first, and she suggested a solution to Bob. About four days later, Bob presented the same problem to George, who suggested the same solution that Liz had proposed four days earlier.

Shortly thereafter, Bob was asked by his superiors how he was going to solve the problem. When he presented the solution that both Liz and George had suggested to him, he immediately credited George – and only George.

Why did this happen? And why didn’t Liz take credit for the advice that she had, after all, been the first to offer Bob four days before George even entered the picture?

There are two issues at play here:

  1. Women tend to be perceived as “nurturers” and “givers” instead of “leaders” and “askers” by others – including other women.
  2. Women themselves tend against talking about their own accomplishments and goals – despite their desire to be recognized for them.

Bob perceived Liz’s advice as something that was natural for her to give, for which he didn’t owe her any recognition, because she never asked for it. Worse yet, he may have unconsciously disregarded her solution in the four days before he approached George with the same problem, and not even realized that Liz and George had both presented him the same solution.

But why give George’s presentation of the solution so much more weight?

When you look at any given organization, you will most likely find that there are more men than women in the role of mentor. This is odd, considering that women are perceived as “givers” and “nurturers”, when mentoring is all about giving and nurturing.

But consider this too: I’ve also observed that when a either a man or a women has the opportunity to choose a mentor, they will more often than not choose a man within the organization.

Is this because they only perceives the male candidates as being influential and leaders in the organization? Is it because the importance of networking and finding a mentor is taught more often to men than to women, and at a much earlier age?

Or, is it because they haven’t heard about the successes of other women in their organization, and therefore there is a perception that the pool of female mentors is very, very small?

It’s probably a combination of all three, but we can no longer afford to overlook the fact that women are hurting not just themselves, but also other women, by not talking about themselves.

Women Must Be Mentored, Too

But all this doesn’t even begin to touch on another fact: that women often feel uncomfortable searching out their own mentor, male or female, because they’re fighting against their personas as “nurturers” and “givers”, along with their unwillingness to talk up their own accomplishments and goals.

When talking with individuals who have a list of impressive and significant accomplishments many people – but particularly women – are many times very reluctant to talk about them, even admit them and certainly not willing to put them down on paper. Women are taught at an early age not to brag, as it makes us appear brash, arrogant, and egotistical: three qualities that are perceived as extremely unattractive in women.

But ultimately, where do we draw the line between bragging and representing ourselves? While the line might currently be blurred and unclear, we must let those around us know who we are, what we stand for, what we have accomplished, and what we want to accomplish going forward.

If we are to not only make it more acceptable for women to be a bit more “selfish” in making sure that they receive the recognition they deserve, but also ensure that women are considered on equal footing with their male colleagues by men and women alike, it’s important that women also feel that they’re able to ask for mentoring and advice for themselves.

And much of this comes from within. Consider how you currently represent yourself, your abilities, your accomplishments, and your goals to the people around you in your everyday life. Below, you can find a few quick tips to get you thinking.

Don’t Be Afraid to Own Your Abilities, Accomplishments, and Goals

1. Know Exactly How What You Do Helps Others

Be able to express this in a very short, memorable, and impactful sentence, so that when people have a particular issue that you’re able to solve, they immediately think of you.

2. Make It Impossible for Anyone to Say No to You

If you have managed to do all the hard work and gained someone’s attention, make sure that you provide them with enough information that they feel they cannot leave the interaction without wanting more. This might take the form of another meeting, a request to follow up, or to see a portfolio.

3. Love What You Do and What It Does for Others

If you are not passionate about what it is you do, it’s negatively impacting everything in your life. Find something that connects with your values and delivers a difference. This is perfectly possible in a corporate environment.

4. Walk Your Talk

We should always be walking our talk. If you are in finance, be sure your personal money is in order. If you are in IT, don't have an overflowing inbox. If you are in marketing, make sure you have a portfolio that reflects your work.

5. Leverage Your Talents

What is your unique ability? How can you weave it more consistently in to your everyday actions? Become known for something that proves to be invaluable, and that will make you indispensable.

6. Help People Who Don’t Know What They Need Right Now

Everyone is overwhelmed today - too much email, too many choices, too many requests on their time, not enough resources. Be sure that people know what you do and have seen you demonstrate it. When they do know what they want, the decision will already be made.

7. Be Emotional and Connect to People

If you only can explain your talents in very rational terms, your audience is much less likely to engage with your message. Don’t be afraid to be emotive when describing challenges you’ve faced, and how it felt after you were able to help the situation by leveraging your talents. This will help people feel connected to you on a deeper level, so that they’re more likely to keep you in mind.

8. Don’t Take What You Do For Granted

All too often when we’re using our unique talents, we take a lot of what we are able to do for granted. After all, it just comes so naturally that it is not a strain, isn't that the same for everyone? Answer: no. So make sure that those individuals who do utilize your talents are fully aware of all that you bring.

9. Have an Answer for the Doubting Thomases

On occasion people will suddenly find a reason to be negative, sarcastic or doubtful of what it is you claim. Be ready with an effective response.

10. Build Your Brand Everywhere You Go

Ensure that all you are doing, saying, and communicating is a reflection of how you want to be known, and that information is what you want others to know. By the time they actually reach you then you have got them at Hello!

This article originally appeared in the Sept/Oct edition of Profiles in Diversity Journal, and is by mentoring training expert Judy Corner.

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