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In the race to the top, mentors can make the difference between getting on the inside track and trailing the field (Dreher and Ash, 1990; Fagenson, 1989; Scandura, 1992; Whitely et al., 1991). Practitioners and academics alike have underscored the importance of getting a mentor. Women, in particular, are told that mentors are essential for overcoming gender-related barriers to advancement (Burke and McKeen, 1990; Noe, 1988; Ragins, 1989). Mentors can buffer them from discrimination and help them get on the "fast track" to advancement.
But is getting a mentor yet one more hurdle to be jumped? Many organizations believe women are handicapped in the race to get a mentor, and there has been a marked proliferation of training and development programmes aimed at helping women develop mentoring relationships (Burke and McKeen, 1989; Chao et al., 1992). However, these programmes are being instituted without a clear understanding of the barriers women may encounter in gaining a mentor. Trainers, and other personnel practitioners, are therefore faced with having to develop programmes without adequate information. Moreover, organizations are spending considerable sums of money on programmes to remove barriers without a clear understanding of what these barriers actually are. In this article we explore gender-related barriers to mentoring, relay the results of an empirical study of this issue, and present recommendations for organizations and human resource practitioners.
Barriers to mentoring: making the first move
Like any relationship, a mentoring relationship requires at least one person to make the first move in initiating the relationship. However, women face different barriers to initiating a mentoring relationship than men. A primary reason for this is that the shortage of women at upper levels of organizations creates a dearth of potential female mentors. To make matters worse, the few available mentors in upper levels are overburdened with mentoring requests from the much larger block of women at lower levels. Therefore, while men can initiate a relationship with someone of the same gender, women are often faced with having to approach someone of the opposite gender. At this point, at least three factors may block women from obtaining a male mentor:
1 sexual issues;
2 sex-role expectations;
3 opportunities for meeting mentors.
Women may be reluctant to initiate a relationship with a male mentor for fear that such an approach will be misconstrued as a sexual advance (Clawson and Kram, 1984; Ragins, 1989). Whether this perception is an accurate portrayal of reality is not important - the perception itself is sufficient to prevent women from initiating mentoring relationships.
This perception, moreover, can be reinforced by the mentor and others. Studies of cross-gender mentoring relationships have found that jealous spouses and resentful coworkers may create problems for proteges and mentors (Bowen, 1985; Fitt and Newton, 1981). Male mentors may select male over female proteges to avoid destructive office gossip and discrediting innuendoes. Mary Cunningham's case provides a clear example of the potential damage resulting from perceived sexual involvement. Irrespective of reality, the perception of romantic involvement between Cunningham and her mentor, Bill Agee, was sufficient to result in loss of credibility, respect and position. In short, sexual issues may certainly serve as a significant block to the development of mentoring relationships for women. …