More than in the average profession, I would wager, I have the gender binary blatantly thrown in my face. I work as the intake coordinator at a national mentoring organization, where I deal with all the incoming inquiries regarding our mentoring program. Adults call with interest in becoming mentors to children in their community, and parents call to register children they feel could benefit from having another supportive adult in their life. The majority of matches are between people of the same gender. We do match boys under 10 with women in some circumstances, but that’s more due to a lack of men volunteering and an excess of boys wanting mentors than to a desire to make a cross-gender match. Another reason boys are allowed to be paired with women and not girls with men is because most parents wouldn’t be comfortable with their daughters being left alone with a man (perpetuating the hyper-sexualization of young girls and the stereotype that all men are predators – and straight predators at that).

The gender issue comes up most with parents of boys. Almost every other call is a mother wanting to register her son to get a male mentor, saying that there’s no father in the house, there’s no male influence, there’s no one for her son to play sports with or look up to, etc. etc. Because we have so many women ready to volunteer, I’ll often ask mothers of younger boys would they be open to have a female big, and most of the time they scoff at the idea and say “Why would they need another woman? I can be their female role model. They need a man for this.” Gender becomes the primary reason for the mentor relationship.

The mentor relationship then becomes a training ground for gender behavior as opposed to a relationship based solely on trust and friendship. While these last two parts are components of the match, the gender aspect is the part that’s highlighted the most. When parents talk about the benefits of the match, they will immediately bring up how it’s so good that their son has a man around, and any positive changes in their son are attributed to the fact that he “finally had a man to teach him things.” Because our society operates so strictly around gender roles, something could be said for a boy being able to relate to a man better than a woman, however that may be because they feel they are expected to bond with someone of their same gender better than the opposite gender, feeling that those relationships are supposed to be primarily romantic.

This issue is also present with girls, but because there is no choice of which gender their daughter’s mentor will be, the parents don’t have as much of a reason to specify whether gender is important or not. It appears obvious to them that you would not pair a girl with an older man, thus they do not question it. There are times, however, when the gender binary is more directly mentioned, such as a call I got last week. A school guidance counselor wanted to recommend our program to a father who was raising a daughter on his own along with his three sons. The counselor insisted there were too many men around her. “You should hear the mouth on that girl,” the counselor told me over the phone. “Swearing, playing rough sports, not a girl friend to her name. I said I had to call to get her a lady mentor, you know, someone to do girlie things with her. Paint her nails, do her hair, those things.” “Uh-huh,” I say with a roll of my eyes.

There’s not much I can say, I knew this going into the job. There’s a gender binary inherent in the organization’s title, and it’s about pairing same gendered adults and children to give extra support to at risk youth. However it wasn’t until I worked here longer and saw how important the gender of the mentor is to the parents (note that it’s mainly the parents it’s important to, not the children) that I realized the danger in continuing to structure the organization in this manner.

The fact that the primary reason most parents want their child to have a same gender mentor is that they feel that mentor can serve as a successful example of their gender and what that boy or girl should aspire to be. It perpetuates the idea that boys become men and girls become women, and it does not give room for flexibility in gender identity. It promotes friendship and puts a positive influence in a child’s life, but it does so by using the gender boxes society has created and further solidifying the rigidity of gender.

The mentoring organization states that it must work within society’s guidelines because otherwise it could appear too radical to the general public and parents may not want to register children that could greatly benefit from our services. However there are ways we could tweak ourselves to at least provide a little resistance to the perpetuation of rigid gender identities rather than strengthening their presence in society. Our organization could discuss the effect s of gender in the mentoring relationship and discuss the options of same- or cross-gendered matches. We could show to the parents how their child could benefit from a role model of either gender, and how behavior improvement is not dependent on having a same-gendered mentor. We could use our cross-gendered matches more in examples of successful matches instead of only marketing our same-gendered matches, making it appear to the public that that is the only type of mentoring we provide. Making gender a topic of discussion could show people that gender is not a given and that there are other options than what seem obvious. This could spread more awareness about gender identity and possibly open people’s minds to new gender possibilities.

There’s something wrong with how this organization frames gender within their mentoring program, but that’s because there’s something wrong with how our society frames gender in general. We have to tackle the gender binary from the outside and from within, and it can start with little conversations that open the way to big outcomes.

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