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New Research: Why Gender Matters

Posted 04/02/2010

Gender matters. Big Sister has always known the important role that gender plays in mentoring, and now we have the research to prove it. More than 50 practitioners and funders gathered at Bank of New York Mellon on Friday, March 26, to hear nationally known researchers, Dr. Jean Rhodes of UMASS Boston’s Donahue Institute, and Dr. Renée Spencer of Boston University’s School of Social Work, share the findings of their respective studies on the role of gender in mentoring.   The event, Getting Results:  Why Gender Matters in Mentoring, was hosted by Bank of New York Mellon and Big Sister Association of Greater Boston in partnership with The Girls’ Coalition of Greater Boston.
Former Massachusetts Commissioner of Public Health, Dr. Deborah Prothrow-Stith, moderated and spoke eloquently about her own experience in a gender-specific setting, as a student at Spelman College. She reminded the audience that when a woman or girl is allowed a gender-specific environment, it lets her focus on her own strengths and weaknesses, and creates space to better herself for herself.  She gave the example that at Spelman, if she didn’t win an academic prize, a Black woman still did; and that was her impetus to improve her own skills.  This remained an important theme throughout the morning, as the research revealed numerous examples of Big Sisters inspiring their Little Sisters to develop and enhance skills in the context of a supportive relationship.
The researchers made it clear that relationships among girls, and women, drive developmental outcomes.  They spoke to this in a variety of ways, including their personal mentor-mentee relationship in the field of mentoring research.  Rhodes and Spencer also addressed this topic in their responses to a range of questions from the attendees: What was the appropriate target population for youth mentoring?  What kind of impact do race and culture have? How can this be applied to the efficacy of group mentoring programs?
Central to the event’s objective was the focus on the ways in which mentor influence is unique to girls.  Dr. Spencer’s study presented qualitative research on the impact of the mentoring relationship between girls and women.  She emphasized that positive outcomes in these relationships are derived from engaged, authentic emotional support and companionship, and that new skills and confidence are built through collaboration.  Spencer illustrated her findings with an anecdote about a Big and Little Sister who practiced singing into their hairbrushes together to ease the Little Sister’s nerves and increase her confidence around auditioning for school musicals.
Dr. Rhodes’ study focused on quantitative research that showed: “clear differences between girls and boys with respect to what they bring to the mentoring relationship, what they get out of the mentoring relationship, how long the matches last, and their level of satisfaction with their mentors over time. Given the results of these analyses, we can only confirm the importance of continuing to offer mentoring programs that take these differences into account and that build on the inherent variations between female and male youth.”  Her findings were what we often see in our Little Sisters:  improvements in relationships with parents and teachers, attitude toward school, school behavior, grades, and self-worth.

Click here for more on how girls and boys experience mentoring relationships differently and how these differences matter when it comes to improving outcomes.


Board members Sharon McNally, of the Connors Family Office, and Lisa Scannell, with Mass Mentoring’s David Shapiro
Deborah Prothrow-Stith shares her
experience with the positive impact of a gender-specific environment
Jean Rhodes and Renée Spencer discuss their respective studies on the role of gender in mentoring