The role of gender in mentoring relationships

May 10, 2013

A qualitative study of female medical students at OHSU and three other institutions was published in the April 2013 edition of Academic Medicine. Rebecca Harrison, M.D., associate professor of medicine, is the OHSU author of the study.

Dr. HarrisonWomen medical students: Have you ever considered why you gravitated toward a male versus a female faculty member for mentoring? Do your expectations about what you might receive or how sound the advice might be from that encounter differ based on the gender of your mentor? We sought to understand how gender plays into mentoring experiences.

The study consisted of focus groups with 48 third- and fourth-year female medical students. Results led us to conclude that gender plays a role in female medical students’ expectations with mentoring, and may influence decisions related to career planning. We identified four themes:

  1. Optimal mentoring relationships are highly relational
  2. Relational mentoring is more important than gender concordance
  3. Gender-based assumptions and stereotypes affect mentoring relationships
  4. Gender-based power dynamics influence students’ thinking about mentoring

Our study supports that successful mentoring relationships happen when faculty mentors – male or female – take the time to get to know students personally and from a career interest. There are gender expectations that female mentors are more relational and supportive than male mentors, whom are described as more direct, content-focused, and less comfortable with discussing work-life balance.

One still might find that the mentee’s gender affects the advice given regarding career choices, for example, and students want to move beyond gender stereotypes in interactions with mentors. There are perceptions that female students’ gender could be a potential hindrance for networking and sponsorship opportunities and a perception that female mentors are less able to provide access to key networks. While it’s uncertain if this is true, we need more experienced women mentors and women in medicine in positions of power, especially in male-dominated fields.

While our study focused on female medical students, both the mentor and mentee can benefit from reflecting on how gender impacts mentoring relationships and set assumptions aside. We need to take time to get to know each other and our values to develop a strong mentoring relationship. It doesn’t matter if you are a male or female mentor; female students want you to know who they are and where they want their careers to go.

Do these results ring true to your experience? Share your thoughts about mentoring, gender issues and/or the interplay of these concepts in the comments below.


Pictured: Rebecca Harrison, M.D