Don’t Rescue Women: Be a Reciprocal Mentor

When women are mentored by men, they make more money, receive more promotions, and report greater satisfaction with their career trajectories. As importantly, cross-gender reciprocal mentorship relationships are also beneficial for men’s careers.

How and Why Men Should Mentor Women.

For both men and women to benefit, you’ll need to change the standard approach of a mentor being an all-knowing guru who dispenses knowledge. These typically hierarchical, one-way relationships frame men who mentor women as champions, heroes, even rescuers. In this model, the mentor shares wisdom, throws down challenges, and when necessary, protects his protégé from all malignant forces in the organization. Enter the chivalrous knight-damsel in distress archetype. As Jennifer de Vries has astutely observed, painting male allies and mentors as heroic rescuers actually strengthens the gendered status quo, inadvertently reinforcing male positional power while framing women as ill-prepared for serious leadership roles.

So what’s a decent guy to do? Happily, there is a promising alternative to the traditional, hierarchical, unidirectional mentoring model. We call it reciprocal mentoring.

Cross-gender reciprocal mentorships are essentially partnerships in which men and women play complementary roles leading to career and personal development for both parties, and ultimately, greater gender equality in the workplace.

In her research on reciprocal mentorship, Belle Rose Ragins discovered that mentorships with the greatest life-long impact are more mutual. In these relationships, there is greater fluidity in expertise between members.

  1. High-impact reciprocal mentorships deal with more than career advancement and compensation and include discussions about concerns that include: professional identity, work-family integration, and personal confidence.
  2. The best mentoring relationships between men and women are based on:
  • Mutual listening and affirmation
  • Humility
  • Shared Power
  1. The most effective mentoring relationships occur when they challenge each other and provide direct specific feedback. Too many men are averse to pushing their female mentees the way they push their male protégés. The best mentors don’t harbor stereotypes about women’s capabilities or resilience in the face of challenge. They confront their mentees when they avoid challenges or perform below potential.

reciprocal mentor

Here are two examples from our research:

When Navy Lieutenant, Tabitha Strobel, one of the first women assigned to a U. S. Navy submarine, reported for duty, her male mentors were deliberate about pulling no punches. She got the same tough assignments and challenging watches as her male counterparts, all of it designed to immunize her for the operational challenges ahead.

It took Susan Chambers, Vice President at Walmart, some time to appreciate that her mentor’s constant challenges were a clear expression of care and commitment: “He set such high standards and expectations; he expected me to move so much faster and to achieve so much more than I ever had before. At the time, I felt it was unfair. But it’s only as I look back that I realize I wouldn’t be in my current role without it. I wouldn’t have been able to get through the difficulties I’ve been through if I had not had someone who cared and expected that much early in my career.”

Inclusive leaders are learning that women and men perform better, advance faster, and choose to stay in their organizations when they are reciprocal mentors to each other.


Excerpts by permission from HBR’s “Mentoring Women is Not About Trying to Rescue Them”, and “How Some Male Mentors Fail at Challenging Their Female Mentees” 

Follow David on Twitter.

[gravityform id="8" title="false" description="false"]