Are women the best mentors for other women? Gender differences in Australian mentoring revealed

Females in Food Chelsea Ford

Females in Food founder Chelsea Ford. Source: Supplied

Small business founders know that finding a mentor can be a powerful antidote to the pressures of starting out on one’s own, but not everyone agrees on the best model to help other entrepreneurs get ahead.

Research conducted by SmartCompany with MYOB for International Women’s Day reveals the numbers of female and male entrepreneurs who have mentors or mentor others are similar, however, who these people are mentored by differs significantly.

Close to 400 small business operators were included in the survey, and of that group 35% said they mentor someone else. Meanwhile, 17% said they receive some form or mentorship.

However, 82% of male business owners had a male mentor, while 18% of men said they have a female mentor.

This compares to just 21% of females who counted a male as a mentor figure. Of the women who responded to the survey, 90% indicated they have a female mentor, suggesting some respondents have mentors from both sexes.

Fifty-two percent of those surveyed said they believe having a mentor would be beneficial to their long-term careers, but only 14% of respondents agreed with the statement: “women make the best mentors for women”.

Instead, 23% of respondents disagreed with the idea that a woman is the best person to mentor a fellow female business owner.

Founder of Girl Geek Academy, Sarah Moran, says the results may have fallen this way because there are still too few senior female leaders available to guide other women, particularly in sectors like technology.

“I think the thing here might be that there actually just aren’t enough women,” Moran says.

To her mind, it’s critical that all business leaders are encouraged to think about mentorship, and also that male leaders think about how they can help more women into positions of power.

“As part of the next phase for Girl Geek Academy, we’re asking, ‘how do we work with men to be great mentors to women?'” Moran says.

It’s important that men who do hold senior positions offer their expertise to up-and-coming women in the field, but Moran believes some feel cautious about coming up to someone and offering a mentorship, given this could come off as “mansplaining”.

“For those that want to mentor men or women, the way to offer is to say, ‘have you ever thought about getting mentoring?'” she says.

Read more: Mentorloop founders launch Sheryl Sandberg’s #MentorHer movement in Australia, calling on male business leaders to pledge support

Small businesses should think hard about mentoring conversations

Founder of Females in Food, Chelsea Ford, says she launched her food industry mentoring program after years of being unable to find a suitable female mentor to help her grow her career.

“I was looking for my own mentor and wanting someone who had experience but the commercial acumen as well,” she says.

Ford believes the differences in who mentors male and female business owners is “changing incredibly slowly”, and that smaller operators have to stand back and consider how they can do more to help all of their staff get ahead through mentoring.

“Unfortunately, women don’t have a lot of senior positions of power in some places [sectors] at the moment. Then, women are often seen as good for the more psychosocial mentoring, for the emotional, whereas men are seen as good for more career-based issues,” Ford says.

For those wanting to foster the best possible mentorships for staff, Ford suggests businesses show empathy and start having more open conversations about the kind of mentorship that both men and women are looking for.

“What needs to happen is that probably men and women need to reach out,” she says.

“Awareness is the biggest piece of this, and through awareness there is empathy. Understand why there are not more senior women in leadership, and encourage those that are senior, so they get a leg up.”

NOW READ: Layne Beachley on the power of mentoring


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