Few studies have explored how gender affects youth mentoring relationships. On an innate level, we know that differences between women and men affect the types and qualities of their relationships. But key questions about how gender influences youth mentoring relationships remain largely unanswered by the scientific community.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tucson makes same-sex mentoring matches, matching male mentors with boys, and female mentors with girls. The only exception is the Big Couple program, which matches couples with Little Brothers. We believe that gender plays an important role in communication and relationship-building, and that children can benefit the most from a positive role model of the same gender as themselves (or from the two-to-one mentoring relationship of a Big Couple). But how does research support the idea that gender affects mentoring relationships?
According to experts in social psychology and linguistics, men’s and women’s friendships perform different functions for the individuals involved. Male relationships tend to be more “instrumental,” meaning that they serve a particular purpose for those involved, and often consist of sharing physical activities. Female relationships, on the other hand, tend to be more “communal”; predicated on self-disclosure, empathy, and intimacy. These differences begin in childhood – the ways that children are socialized to behave greatly impact communication styles as adults.
Interestingly, female mentees are more likely than male mentees to have difficult and/or alienating relationships with caregivers. According to an evaluation of a Big Brothers Big Sisters study, girls referred to the program report significantly lower levels of attachment to their parents and lower levels of parental trust. This might make it more difficult for girls to establish strong mentoring relationships, but also suggests a significant potential for improvement in this area.
In the same study, researchers found that girls’ mentoring relationships typically lasted longer than those of boys, and that girls were less satisfied in short-term and medium-term relationships. The benefits of long-term relationships held across both genders.
Mentors play an important role in shaping the mentoring relationship. Awareness of gender differences in communication and relationship-building is crucial to creating the strongest mentoring match possible. Mentors should take cues from mentees in finding balance between developing intimacy, working toward specific goals, and just having fun together. Regardless of gender, sensitivity to the mentee’s circumstances, desires, and personality will result in a beneficial relationship for both child and adult.