At a recent Women in Mining event I attended, an interesting question was asked of the panel. It related to an observation that men and women differ in the level of clarity they have around career goals – that men can generally state their goals explicitly whereas women are less likely to be able to. The question was “how can a mentor best assist a mentee who isn’t clear on their goals?”

I’ve heard similar statements before in the context of job interviews, especially regarding salary aspirations. We know that women can be just as ambitious as men, so what is it that stops them from defining what they want the way men do?

Here are some suggestions of the powers at play here.

Progression is expected of men

Just as society holds an image of the expected role of women, men are also subjected to certain expectations. Social norms dictate that men are expected to progress in their careers, to get promoted and ultimately be the provider for their families. It is natural, therefore, for men to think about what that next step is to meet the will of the society around them. For women, such planning requires deliberate, mindful effort against the tide.

The double bind

Women are also subjected to the “double-bind”, a term that describes the negative correlation between a woman’s level of success and her likeability. Simply put, women may risk losing friends by being ambitious so it’s hardly surprising if they hesitate in committing to a lofty goal.

Lack of confidence

Hesitantly, I also suggest that lack of confidence is a factor. I hesitate because I dislike highlighting this issue given the negative connotation of women being somehow weaker.

I also believe, however, that confidence is not a fixed attribute and varies with circumstance. Lacking confidence when you work in an industry that is dominated by the opposite sex is natural (I have heard numerous senior men admit to being nervous speaking in front of a crowd of women) and, whether unconscious or conscious, it could be holding women back.

Women may have a more complex view of their options

A final suggestion is that perhaps women have a more complex notion of ambition. For women, wanting to progress may not necessarily mean rising through the ranks in a conventional way. Women’s salaries are more often the secondary income and with this can come the relative luxury of lower pressure on their earnings to provide for themselves and their family*. This can afford women greater freedom to pursue their interests and more meaningful or satisfying work but in the process, may allow so many options making choosing a path more difficult.

* This is obviously not always the case and I acknowledge that some women are the primary provider for their families.

But let’s return to the question. “In the context of mentoring, how can a mentor assist mentees who are unsure of their goals?”

The short answer is that it’s simply not part of the mentor’s job description. Sponsorship, mentoring, career coaching and career counselling are all different functions and for help figuring out what you want, you should be turning to a career counsellor.

career counsellor helps you figure out what you want,

career coach helps you get what you want,

mentor helps you get what you want with the added bonus of relevant knowledge and experience, and

sponsor puts your name forward for opportunities and vouches for you.

So if you find yourself in the position of feeling like you don’t have a clue what you want, don’t despair! There are plenty of resources you can turn to (drop me a line, I am happy to point you to some) – but also don’t be afraid to seek assistance from a career counsellor. It’s no different to seeking the help of a coach, mentor or sponsor, which we know can all be incredibly effective, and it could save yourself a LOT of time by getting your goals right before you set about achieving them.

A final thought for organisations out there, perhaps it’s time to consider investing in career counselling for your employees. Your mentoring programs may not be effective without it.