Women prefer other women as mentors—sometimes | Mint

Women prefer other women as mentors—sometimes

Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto


A new study suggests that under certain conditions, the preference no longer holds

A lot of mentorship programs pair women students and mentors. But do women always prefer female mentors?

A recent study suggests that female students do show a preference for female mentors in situations where they lack information about the mentors. But when there is more information—for instance, about the mentor’s affability, likelihood to give personalized advice or awareness of job opportunities—the preference no longer holds.

“It seems that women often use gender as a proxy for personality traits, like friendliness," says Melanie Wasserman, an assistant professor of economics at the UCLA Anderson School of Management and co-author of the study.

In the first part of the paper, the authors conducted an observational study that looked at a mentorship website connecting students and alumni from the same college or university. The authors looked at 6,325 conversations between students and alumni, and found that female students were more willing than male students by 20 percentage points to contact female mentors, regardless of majors and occupations.

Valued traits

To better understand these results, the authors conducted a second study to identify mentor traits that students valued most highly. And while they continued to focus on female students’ mentor preferences, the authors also looked at preferences of students who were the first in their family to attend college.

In this experiment the researchers divided 834 UCLA students into two equal groups. The first group was shown 30 pairs of hypothetical mentors and asked which one they preferred. Students were told each mentor’s occupation, whether they had 30 or 60 minutes available, whether they, too, had been first-generation college students, when the mentor graduated (as a proxy for age) and a made-up first name that unambiguously conveyed gender. The students, who were asked to identify their preferred occupation, were only shown mentors with occupations relevant to their interest.

For this first group, female students were 19% more likely to choose a female mentor than a male mentor when all the other characteristics were the same. When the mentors had different traits, such as a different focus professionally, female students were willing to give up a mentor with their preferred occupation 28% of the time to get a female mentor.

By contrast, male students’ preference for male mentors was only marginally statistically significant when all other characteristics were the same. When mentor characteristics differed, male students were only willing to give up a mentor with their preferred occupation 5% of the time to get a male mentor.

More information

The second group of students received all of the same information about the 30 pairs of mentors, with one additional detail: star ratings from past mentees. The ratings reflected each mentor’s knowledge about job opportunities, affability and likelihood to give personalized advice. When this additional information was given, neither female nor male students were willing to sacrifice a mentor with their preferred occupation for a female or male mentor.

“When women knew that they were likely to get along with the mentor, gender mattered a lot less," says Yana Gallen, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago and co-author.

The findings related to first-generation were significant as well. First-generation students still wanted first-generation mentors even when they received additional information about the mentor.

“This suggests first-generation mentors may provide some unique perspectives that students value," says Dr. Gallen. For instance, first-generation mentors might have insight into how to look for a professional position while holding down a full-time job and being a full-time student—“considerations that people with less financial constraints may not even think about," she says.

The authors both say the study’s results could be used to improve mentorship programs.

“It can better help people who run these programs decide how to best allocate the resources they have," Dr. Wasserman says.

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