Engaging Men as Mentors by David Smith and Brad Johnson

Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor WomenEngaging Men as Mentors for Women

by David G. Smith and W. Brad Johnson

1 June 2017


David G. SmithDavid G. Smith, is an active duty U.S. Navy Captain and Associate Professor of Sociology in the Department of Leadership, Ethics, and Law at the United States Naval Academy. He is the co-author of Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women. His research focuses on gender, work, and family issues including dual career families, military families, women in the military, and retention of women.

W. Brad JohnsonW. Brad Johnson, is a professor of psychology in the Department of Leadership, Ethics, and Law at the United States Naval Academy, and a Faculty Associate at Johns Hopkins University. He is the co-author of Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women as well as other books about mentoring.

Despite the positive trend in recruiting and hiring more women into traditionally male businesses and professions, there is still a glaring void in gender parity in senior management positions, C-suites, and boardrooms. For example, the banking, insurance, and financial services industry’s entry level employees boast 57% women, yet the C-suites contain only 21% women (McKinsey & Company, 2016, p.28). This discrepancy is replicated in nearly every business and profession. Women face exclusion, under-promotion, and under-compensation and are often missing from the most important leadership positions.

To begin to understand why women may be missing from senior leadership jobs, consider the following examples from recent news reports of toxic workplaces where sexual harassment and discrimination are commonplace. These examples provide indications of why women feel excluded and devalued. In 2015, British Nobel Prize-winning scientist Tim Hunt famously told the media, “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry” (Sarkar, 2015) In the U.S. that same year, congressional staffers revealed that an informal policy prevented their female peers from being alone with their male Representative or Senator after hours or even riding alone in vehicles with them to meetings for fear of perceptions (Mimms, 2015). The U.S. Marine Corps notably fired a female recruit training battalion commanding officer for setting standards too high and being too “aggressive and abrasive”— really? (Hodge Seck, 2015). And just as important, the recent “Marines United” Facebook page scandal serves as a reminder that beyond the despicable and criminal behavior of the participants, there are too many men who are silent bystanders at work (Chappell, 2017).

To accept this situation is to do so to the detriment of organizations, their employees, and their customers. Excluding and devaluing half of those at the top of the curve for intelligence, emotional intelligence, and creativity limits performance and relegates businesses to mediocrity at best. Talent management must include no less than 100% of the talent pool. There is now unequivocal evidence that gender-balanced leadership teams enhance an organization’s mission success. More gender-diverse corporate leadership teams produce higher sales, increased profit margins, better corporate governance and overall increased corporate value. So why are companies dragging their feet or unable to effectively increase the proportion of women in key leadership positions? We suggest that one key reason is that men don’t engage in the professional development and mentoring of women at work as they do for other men.

Decades of research show what most of us already know: excellent mentoring relationships regardless of gender provide professional skill development, networking, confidence, identity development, job satisfaction, organizational commitment, reduced stress and role conflict, and, ultimately, career eminence. Furthermore, women who are mentored by men enjoy more promotions and higher salaries (Ramaswami, Dreher, Bretz, & Wiethoff, 2010). Yet women, like other minority groups at work, are less likely to be mentored. Women are often told to go find a mentor to help them develop professionally, but finding that mentor can pose a significant challenge.

Junior women may set out to find someone who looks like them, only to become frustrated when there isn’t anyone. Often there just aren’t enough senior women in the organization to mentor all the junior women while attending to their own demanding responsibilities. Some senior women in male-dominated businesses may also be hesitant to mentor a junior woman until she has proven herself. When women are a minority, tokenism can be reinforced when a woman doesn’t perform well; the perception is that poor performance by one member of the group affects all women in the organization. Research shows that this is particularly true in businesses where gender discrimination is part of the culture. The fear of being connected to a woman who does not perform well in this culture may influence a senior woman to be more cautious about whom she mentors. Finally, in male-dominated organizations, the few positions open to women may cause women to feel competitive with other women.

So why can’t men be excellent mentors for women? We contend that not only can they intentionally and effectively mentor women, but that they should. Because power positions in many organizations are occupied by men, it naturally follows that men should be involved with mentoring talented men and women for future organizational success. When women are able to find a male mentor, they can share in the social capital, networks, and influence that men are more likely to have as stakeholders. Not only does male-female mentorship make sense from a bottom-line business perspective, and not only do we see the positive professional implications for the women who receive advocacy at work, there are benefits, too often overlooked, for the male mentors as well. Men who mentor women have a more comprehensive and diverse understanding of their organization, a broader mentoring and organizational network, and improved interpersonal skills that translate into being better husbands and fathers — better men — outside of the organization. Male mentors also confide that they feel like they learn more from their female mentees than their mentees do from them.

Despite all the arguments and supporting evidence for why men should mentor talented women, there are several reasons some men give for not engaging in meaningful mentoring relationships with women. We call this the “Reluctant Male Syndrome.” One of the primary reasons relates to the way men perceive women at work. These perceptions are often based on unconscious biases and stereotypes that have been learned through socialization. While all of us make instantaneous, automatic, implicit assumptions about others, these stereotypes are simply mental shortcuts. While they may be efficient, they are often wrong and lead to inappropriate and damaging behavior. Men may be reluctant to engage in professional mentoring relationships with women if they perceive women this way (e.g., fragile, lack drive/commitment, bad investment—i.e., not committed outside the home, not leader material). Yet, women contend with several double binds including: women who work as many hours as guys are aberrant—probably terrible moms; strong men are leaders—strong women are bossy.

From what we know about unconscious or implicit bias, the most efficient antidote involves increasing self-awareness and exposure to counter-stereotypical information. Possessing a desire to learn and understand biases is a hallmark for leaders. Recognizing that we all have biases and that these are a normal part of our lived experience helps in not shaming or blaming people, but is not an excuse for acting on these biases. Failing to acknowledge our biases leaves people vulnerable to making decisions and acting on those biases — self-management of biases is key. Evidence clearly shows that interaction with talented women in the workplace enables gender-biased men to confront their biases in light of this new counter-stereotypical information. The contact hypothesis helps us to understand how more interaction with women in a traditionally male workplace helps to dispel stereotypes. Mere exposure to working with women can also help men to overcome any anxiety they may also have about close, caring, non-sexual, professional relationships with women.

We all have relationship histories and have been socialized to follow certain social scripts for how to act in different relationships. Some men in traditionally male organizations may have anxiety about having a professional mentoring relationship with a woman who is not their mother, wife, or daughter. Not having a social script to follow can lead some men to avoid these relationships instead of learning how to cope with their anxieties about making a gendered mistake, or acting on feelings of attraction. Some men will attempt to engage in a cross-gender mentoring relationship employing familiar (though inappropriate) scripts — we call these “manscripts” — to ease their anxiety. Manscripts often prove to be undermining, disempowering, and detrimental to an effective mutual mentoring relationship with an adult woman. Some of the common manscripts include the protective father, rescuing knight, and the seducing guru. Again, some of these may seem positive and helpful in overcoming anxiety, but ultimately they will limit the growth and development of both the mentee and the mentor.

Yet another reason some men worry about cross-gender mentoring relationships is that people sometimes gossip about cross-gender workplace relationships. In our experience, men who earn a reputation for mentoring men and women — frequently and transparently — don’t have perception issues (including rumors) with others at work. These concerns about perceptions can extend to spouses or partners as well. In either case, transparency and consistency are key to preventing untoward rumors. Transparency in terms of where and when mentoring occurs is one way to think about this. Mentoring in public places during working hours works best. To ensure fairness in opportunity and access, consistency in mentoring men and women is vital. For example, some male mentors talk about how they only mentor at breakfast and lunch, regardless of mentee gender.

While some men appear to get particularly anxious in cross-gender mentorships if they begin to experience attraction to a mentee, we think men can be purposeful in using the frontal lobe of their brains to be prudent, thoughtful, and focused on the best interests of their mentees. As mentors, men should think of their mentoring relationships as a fiduciary obligation. The first rule in this case is “do no harm.” Sexualizing a mentoring relationship is clearly inappropriate. However, men should be self-aware and recognize when they are having feelings of attraction. Again, our evolved brains may have remnants of seeing women as potential mating partners that can lead to inappropriate behavior if not acknowledged. If this happens, men should be careful to not discuss this with their mentee, and instead seek out a trusted colleague who will help hold them accountable for making good decisions.

Professions including ours — the U.S. military — that are working to improve gender diversity and equity focus on policies and programs to increase recruitment of women and eliminate overt discrimination. However, efforts at changing the culture for women at work are destined to be fruitless if there is no concerted focus on conversations with men regarding how they can be part of the solution for gender equity and parity. It is clear that there is a need in the workplace to engage men in a conversation on a more gender inclusive approach to mentoring that focuses on the benefits to the mission. Although recent inclusion efforts, such as Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In movement, reinforce the message that men need to be part of the solution for leveling the playing field at work — few gender-inclusion leaders are talking directly to guys.

Having worked for the military, we knew that it might be more effective to start this conversation as two men able to speak with credibility while providing the social science evidence from our disciplines of psychology and sociology to support the message. In our book Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women, Part I focuses on the “why” and provides the social science evidence to understand cross-gender relationships. It was interesting when we first started talking to people at the Naval Academy about our message — many would ask us if we knew that we were two “dudes?” Yes, we do know that we are men! In writing Athena Rising, we included women’s voices from our interviews with high-flying women across many professions. Based upon their experiences with strong male mentors, we include male mentor best practices in Part II. We refer to this section of the book as the “toolbox” for men looking to intentionally and deliberately be excellent mentors to the rising Athenas they work alongside. Here are some of our favorite mentoring strategies for men:

  • Listen. The mentor’s challenge is to get to know his mentee through listening and understanding her. Only then can a mentor help her uniquely grow in her career and find tasks and assignments that seem to be an especially strong fit for her skill sets and help honor her dreams and ambitions.
  • Watch those assumptions. Men’s perceptions about women and how they are fundamentally different from men gets in the way of a productive mentoring relationship. Men who mentor women often quickly come to understand that their female mentees are not all that different when it comes to values and priorities at work.
  • Maintain a learning orientation. Male mentors who approach mentoring relationships with a certain amount of gender humility are most effective. While women are not an alien species, most men certainly have not experienced what it’s like to be a woman at work.
  • Treat her like the guys. Providing critical feedback to women can be a challenge for male mentors due to concerns that they may hurt a woman’s feelings. However, not providing this feedback undermines her ability to grow and develop by learning important lessons and experiencing key developmental milestones.
  • Make sure she has a seat at the table. Men and male mentors specifically need to be aware of who is included and who is not when there are important meetings and events. A quick look around the room should be enough to realize who is not in the room and the conversation. Similarly, men should ensure that women are not only in the room, but that they have a seat at the table and have a voice. Too often women’s contributions and ideas are not given due consideration and valued. Men need to speak up and correct these gender disparities.
  • Share social capital and push her forward. Talk about her accomplishments and help overcome her reluctance to self-promote. As men we have learned to do this for each other. Sheryl Sandberg talks about how Larry Summers would brag about her and how it embarrassed her. Over time, she grasped the importance of allowing him to share his enthusiastic confidence and valuing of her work. Betsy Myers, one of the keynote speakers at ILA’s forthcoming Women and Leadership conference talks about how David Gergen is her “raving fan” — we think more men should be raving fans.
  • Hone not clone. Gender-sensitive mentorship also means that a male mentor won’t assume that female mentees should behave or lead just like he does. Strong mentors for women help them sharpen their leadership approach, not change it to mimic the mentor. It is certainly true that each mentee is unique in the talents, strengths, experiences, and ambitions she brings to the organization.
  • Differentiate striving for excellence from perfectionism. It’s not uncommon for women to set impossibly high performance standards and then be self-critical about not reaching them. Those suffering the imposter syndrome in a male-centric workplace, trying to demonstrate that they belong in the organization, appear especially vulnerable to perfectionism. Women have also learned that they have to continuously prove themselves to men at work while men are often judged more on potential. Mistakes by women as a token group often get more attention. Be supportive and provide helpful exposure to imperfection. Sharing helps in an area where many of us suffer!


Chappell, B. (2017, March 10). Nude-Photo Scandal May Expand Beyond ‘Marines Unites’ Facebook Group. NPR.com. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/03/10/519682039/nude-photo-scandal-may-expand-beyond-marines-united-facebook-group

Hodge Seck, H. (2017, July 7). Controversy Surrounds Firing of Marines’ Female Recruit Battalion CO. Marine Corps Times. Retrieved from http://www.marinecorpstimes.com/story/military/2015/07/07/kate-germano-fired-marine-corps-female-recruit-unit-commander/29763371/

McKinsey & Company. (2016). Women in the Workplace 2016. Retrieved from https://womenintheworkplace.com/Women_in_the_Workplace_2016.pdf

Mimms, S. (2015, May 14). Why Some Male Members of Congress Won’t Be Alone With Female Staffers. Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.nationaljournal.com/s/27043/why-some-male-members-congress-wont-be-alone-with-female-staffers

Ramaswami, A., Dreher, G. F., Bretz, R., & Wiethoff, C. (2010). Gender, Mentoring, and Career Success: The Importance of Organizational Context. Personnel Psychology, 63, 385-405.

Sarkar, M. (2015, June 10). Nobel Winner: Women in Labs ‘Fall in Love With You…You Criticize Them, They Cry.’ CNN.com. http://edition.cnn.com/2015/06/10/europe/hunt-women-scientists/index.html

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