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Interaction of gender, mentoring, power distance on career attainment: A cross-cultural comparison

Interaction of gender, mentoring, power distance on career attainment: A cross-cultural comparisonGlobal research, July 2013

A strong body of research has connected mentoring to career success for protégés as measured by remuneration and organisational position. The dominant lens of this research however is Western, and much less is known about mentoring in Asian countries. Could it be that the mentoring relationship and outcomes are quite different?  And what is the impact of a traditional culture which emphasises the “power distance” between mentors and protégés, and accepts gender inequality?  Associate Professor Ramaswami (ESSEC Business School, France), Professor Huang (National Chengchi University, Taiwan) and Professor Dreher (Indiana University Bloomington, USA) sought to answer these questions by examining the experiences of protégés in Taiwan and the USA. Their findings indicate that mentoring outcomes, a pre-condition of which is a strong personal relationship between a senior and junior colleague, are sensitive to cultural expectations of appropriate behaviour. Moreover these multiple expectations have an amplified impact on women, and breaching assumptions about modesty and deference to a mentor’s position has much greater repercussions for men than women.


This study aimed to explore the relationship between “power distance” (i.e. “the extent to which a society expects and accepts unequal distribution of power”) and “gender egalitarianism (i.e. “the extent to which a society minimises gender-role inequality and discrimination, and determines men’s and women’s roles in their homes, organisations and communities”) on mentoring outcomes for men and women.

The researchers hypothesised that mentoring benefits are more likely for women who behave in a way that is consistent with expectations of power difference (i.e. high distance in Taiwan as indicated by formality and low distance in the USA as indicated by familiarity) and gender equality (e.g. modesty in Taiwan and assertiveness in the USA). Conversely, the researchers hypothesised that breaches of these normative and combined expectations would be greater for women than men.


The survey was sent to MBA students studying at an American university and employees at an industrial manufacturing company, as well as graduates of a Taiwanese university. The final sample of managers and professionals comprised 225 American responses and 232 Taiwanese. The sample demographics were broadly similar, with the US sample slightly younger (the mean respondent age was 35.8 years compared with 41.14 years), less male (42% compared with 59% in the Taiwanese sample) and with fewer years of work experience (11.57 years compared with 17.07 years).

Respondents were asked questions about compensation, their organisational position, sex, whether they had been mentored (either formally or informally) and views about power distance (e.g. “People in higher positions should make most decisions without consulting people in lower positions”).


The findings confirmed the hypotheses, namely power distance matters, but much more for women than men. In Taiwan, women mentees with high power distance reported higher salaries than women mentees with lower power distance, and even when some women didn’t have a mentor, they still gained more from having a high power distance than a low power distance. The relationship was the same for organisational position. In contrast, men reported higher salaries when mentored regardless of the power distance.

In the USA the opposite was true, namely having a low power difference was more important for the career outcomes of women mentees than men’s mentees. And the combination of mentoring, plus a low power difference, generated more significant compensation returns for women than being mentored with high power distance or not-being mentored with low power difference.


This study provides a more nuanced understanding of the dynamics and outcomes of mentoring in two different cultures, one of which was characterised by traditions of high power distance (Taiwan) and lower power distance (USA).  By adding a second lens of gender egalitarianism, the study also identified the amplified impact for women of consistency with cultural expectations of deference and modesty, or alternatively familiarity and assertiveness. It seems that getting the balance right carries much more risk for women, especially in the context of mentoring where mentors can act as supporters or saboteurs.

The researchers identified another implication from this study, namely the impact of globalisation.  Firstly, the “changing cultural values and the mix of traditionalism and modernity (could) represent relationship fault lines between senior and junior employees” in Taiwan.  Secondly, employees undertaking an expatriate assignment are often paired with a local mentor to facilitate their acclimatisation.  Being unaware of hidden local expectations of power distant and gender equality may subtly disrupt the success of these career development opportunities, particularly for women travelling from the East to the West, or the West to the East.

To read the full article, see Ramaswami, A., Huang, Jia-Chi and Dreher, G., (2013) “Interaction of gender, mentoring and power distance on career attainment: A cross-cultural comparison” Human Relations, Published online before print June 24, 2013, doi: 10.1177/0018726713490000.


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