Male mentors at work reach the parts women can't with advice on the strange workings of the corporate mind. Hester Lacey reports
BEHIND EVERY great man there has to be a great woman, which is all well and good. But who are great women supposed to lean on? Often isolated in male-dominated workplaces, banging their heads on the glass ceiling, ambitious women are beginning to try to turn the tables by getting a man on their side. Male "mentors" are becoming a valuable accessory in today's aggressive work environment.

Mentors, normally senior executives in a similar field to their mentees, work on a one-to-one basis, providing confidential advice and help with problem-solving. The mentoring system is well established among male executives; the female network is much less developed, in part because there are so few women in top, executive positions. Focus Central London, the training and enterprise council for the capital, is trying to raise awareness of mentoring and wants more companies to take it up - particularly for women.

Some women executives already find their male mentors invaluable. Barbara Stanley, 40, is the European market development director for Infomix, one of the world's leading database companies. "Information technology is very male dominated," she explains. "It's very helpful to get a male perspective on problems and issues. Men are much more cut and dried about things, and see things in black and white, while women tend to see shades of grey."

A mentor, she says, can also provide a neutral viewpoint. "It's good to get a detached point of view, and you can tap into a load of experience that you don't have. And it's non-competitive, because they don't work for your company." Stanley's mentors, senior executives in her field, are unpaid and she works with them informally. "There are very few companies with effective formal mentoring programmes," she says. "A mentoring relationship has to evolve - you have to develop an affinity."

One of Stanley's mentors is Michael Harrison, chairman and managing director of IT firm Cedardata. "Women are particularly under-represented at senior management levels in information technology and that's a shame," he says. "There is a lot of good-quality resource that is being under-used." He says much of his work with women in his field - some of whom have subsequently reached senior positions - involves workplace relationships. "The environment is so dominated by men that it's often difficult for women to get the complete picture. One example is in presentations - some men still find that a woman forcefully arguing her point causes added tension. If a woman can be sensitive to that interpersonal environment and be aware of potential problems before going into the meeting it gives an added dimension of understanding."

Although some women, like Stanley, will find unofficial mentors, Focus is keen for companies to start implementing formal schemes, with external mentors being paid for their services. Philippa Collins-Robson, director of marketing and strategic planning at Focus, has had her own mentor, Amin Rajan, chief executive of Create, a European network of researchers, since 1995. "Amin can get outside the office politics," she says. "He can say, 'Well, in the cold light of day, what about this, this and this?' Because he counsels other chief executives, I can see my problems through male eyes and senior executive eyes."

Yes, but what exactly is wrong with the female perspective? "Men and women react differently, logically and emotionally. I'm learning new behaviour in terms of boardroom style and how I conduct myself in meetings," says Collins-Robson. "You have to know these things these days. There is no point in going in and saying 'You have to take me how I am,' - understanding where people are coming from on a male level is very useful.

"For example, I tend to be quite vociferous, and now I listen more, and make fewer but more pointed inputs. And I have learned the importance of preparation time. You don't just go into a meeting cold, you talk to people beforehand, try to build a consensus before you go into the boardroom, so that you've got allies who you have already warmed up, who have had time to think about what you want to say and are on your side."

Amin Rajan, who has been a mentor for 15 years, says that most of his mentees are men. "It is male-dominated because most chief executives are men. Large companies provide budgets of perhaps pounds 25,000 per individual to spend on mentoring, because they are starting to realise that leadership development is not about training, it is about understanding yourself and others, which requires one-to-one encounters. And as companies are delayering and downsizing, they are losing their best internal coaches and mentors."

An effective mentor, he says, does not solve problems for their mentees. "They put their heads together with their mentee to solve a given issue, or they encourage the mentee to come up with their own solutions and then make their own suggestions. A good mentor is a good listener, who brings out the best in the other person and helps build their self-confidence."

Focus claims mentoring is more cost-effective than training courses, partly because it deals in specifics relevant to the individual rather than generalities. But they may find some problems in persuading companies to take up such schemes. "It doesn't work at all," says one personnel officer, from a high-street name company. "People don't have time to implement it effectively and often mentors take on mentees just because it looks good on their own CV; often they know nothing about the job their mentee is doing."

Stanley, who helps some of her younger colleagues, agrees that not everyone benefits from mentoring. "It has to be operated on people with potential," she says. "You can't be effective if you don't have the raw material to work with." And having an older man on your case is no guarantee of a friendly ear and a helping hand.

One 27-year-old woman who works in marketing found that her experience of mentoring in a previous job was an unhappy one. "One of my male seniors was assigned to keep an eye on me, but he used our sessions to criticise me - there was never any discussion between us. I think he thought I was a young flibbertigibbet who needed taking in hand, and I thought he was an old fuddy-duddy who needed to be retired. I was very glad to leave him behind. I think it was an embarrassment to us both."