Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women

by W. Brad Johnson and David Smith

AthenaWomen are currently serving in some of the highest positions within both private and public sectors, but they are still vastly outnumbered by men in senior positions.  It is therefore critical that senior male leaders proactively mentor women and recognize the subconscious biases that may prevent them from promoting or challenging their female subordinates.  Successful organizations desire leaders who score high on social and emotional intelligence, value collaboration, and can inspire the workforce – women are often overlooked even though they are naturally a great fit.  Women’s success is often attributed to luck, not competence, and women themselves often sell themselves short.  Women tend to decline opportunities because they don’t believe they meet all of the criteria, while men are socialized to take risks and challenge themselves with tasks they may not be completely prepared to achieve.

The military in particular is dominated by male leaders, so it is critical that they understand how to properly and effectively mentor the women in their formations.  There simply aren’t enough female leaders available to mentor all the women, and they should not have to.

To be a good mentor, men must recognize their own gender biases.  Men should not view themselves as their mentee’s father figure or protector.  They should not be afraid to challenge women, although it goes against their socialized nature to take care of or protect them from difficulty. It makes women feel stereotyped when men assume “all women” think or desire certain things; each woman is an individual and should be mentored as such.  Men should not presume they understand what their female mentee has been through to get to her current position, or what she desires out of her job. Her career goals and values may be different; mentors should listen and understand their female mentees as a person.  Mentoring should include career and family concerns.  Above all, the mentorship relationship must overcome any physical attraction — mentees are not there to be seduced.

Men should promote formal mentoring programs, for both men and women.  They may need to initiate these programs and ensure that women are paired up with appropriate mentors.  Men can overcome any perception of favoritism or inappropriate relationships by frequently mentoring both men and women. They should not treat men and women differently in the workplace or advantage one over the other based on gender alone.  If men lead from the front and establish an inclusive environment, they will likely not have to worry about rumors or false allegations.

Men also must seek to create opportunities for female leaders; they should recognize talented women and become deliberate mentors.  They must be a cheerleader for their mentee because women are socialized to give credit to their teams for achievements, not to be outspoken about their own wins.  Men can share their social capital and bring women into the right professional circles; as one woman said, “my mentor is my key to the men’s room.”

Points to Ponder:

  1. What are some techniques men can use to protect themselves from both false allegations and the perception of inappropriate relationships when mentoring women?
  2. How can men avoid only mentoring the high-speed women that are most like them? How can we encourage them to mentor those women who need the most help?

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