Mentoring Women: What Men and Women Should Know

June 22, 2017 | Jenine John, MD
Career Development

You may have some concerns about whether you can mentor women well. Rest assured that the process is not much different from mentoring men, and it is generally more productive to focus on the similarities between the genders. By keeping a few things in mind, though, you can maximize the effectiveness of the mentoring relationship.

A Constellation of Mentors

It has been difficult for women in many fields to access effective mentoring. You can help with this by introducing your mentee to other potential mentors and guiding your mentee to institutional mentorship programs, ACC’s mMentoring Program, and ACC’s Women- in- Cardiology sSection.

Female and Male Mentors

Your mentee should have at least one female mentor, but most of her mentors will probably be male. She should not limit discussion of work-life balance to meetings with her female mentors. Most men have families and can offer valuable insights.

Some men, particularly those with physician wives, may in fact be more effective at mentoring females than some women. Personally, I have encountered nothing but support from female cardiologists. Many women, though, recount experiences where senior female cardiologists gave them a cold shoulder. This is actually a well-described phenomenon seen in many fields where women are rare.

Understanding why these more senior women developed this attitude helps prevent their mindset from becoming perpetuated. Most got ahead in cardiology by downplaying their womanhood and “manning up.” To accomplish this, they often avoid being associated with other women. Eventually they may have internalized the concept that women are generally weaker.

Many also learned to see other successful women as direct threats to their career goals because it was felt that there was only so much room at the top for women. Additionally, many were frequently singled out as a token woman, and being lauded as a successful female cardiologist came across as “she’s pretty good, for a woman.” This led these cardiologists to try to dissociate themselves from the “female” title.

If you are a woman, try to assess whether these thought processes are influencing you to some extent and hindering your ability to adequately mentor other women.


Issues surrounding pregnancy can be a source of much anxiety for your mentee. An excellent paper published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, The Pregnant Cardiologist, is a must-read for anyone with a female mentee.

The most important thing is not for you to have the answers, but to express a willingness to talk about the subject. Many women avoid mentioning a desire to become pregnant out of fear they will be judged as uncommitted to their career.

Work-Life Balance

In interviews, men are often asked questions about their career goals while women are often asked how they’ll juggle home and work. This is becoming a dated way of thinking.

At a panel discussion I attended last year, a female cardiology fellow asked the panel for advice on balancing work and family. She was followed by three male cardiology fellows who asked similar questions. As couples are increasingly sharing household responsibilities, work-life balance is becoming an increasingly important part of mentoring both men and women. With female mentees, it can be helpful to preface the discussion by noting that you discuss this with all mentees.

Counterproductive Thought Patterns

A study in business found that men applied for a job when they met 60 percent of the qualifications, but women applied only when they met 100 percent % of them. This could be because women receive less informal advice than men and are therefore more apt to take the list of qualifications at face value. Or, it may be because of the sense that women need to be more qualified to be realistically considered for a position. Alternatively, it could be because girls tend to be taught perfection rather than bravery.

Another business study found that women were less likely than men to apply for leadership positions if they had previously been rejected for a similar position. In cardiology, women often look around them and see few female leaders and grand rounds speakers. Add some rejections to the mix, and it is easy to see how a woman could end up feeling that she doesn’t actually belong in those leadership positions.

As with any blanket statements about women, these may not apply to your mentee. Being aware of these thought processes, however, can help you can recognize and address them if they occur.

Pitfalls to Avoid

It’s easy to fall into the trap of making assumptions about a mentee’s values. A friend was recently in the difficult position of having to choose between two options: one that would further his career and one that would further his relationship with his girlfriend. He turned to friends for advice. Interestingly, most of the women said they would prioritize career if they were in his situation, while most of the men said they would prioritize the relationship.

Take the time to ask questions to ascertain each individual mentee’s mindset and what topics they want to focus on. Some women could become uncomfortable if they feel that mentoring is overly centered on their gender.

Also, please do not talk about “having it all.” This phrase, used almost exclusively in reference to women, applies enormous pressure. A woman may be commended as someone who “has it all,” implying that only someone as extraordinary as she can manage to pull her act together. On top of this, it has become popular for women to advise other women that they can’t have it all, implying that even if they are professionally successful, women will certainly have disappointing lives. The reality is that building a career is challenging for anyone, particularly given current workplace policies. Despite the challenges, the ability to craft a career that is personally fulfilling is within reach. As a mentor, you can provide guidance that can be instrumental in helping women get there.

Please leave a comment below with any thoughts on mentoring women. Also, see my other article, Mentoring: Are You Doing It Right?

This article was authored by Jenine John, MD, a Fellow in Training (FIT) at Stony Brook University Hospital in New York.

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Please note: You may identify yourself via the "Guest" fields, but there is no additional need to login to in order to comment.