What Women Want In Male Mentors

This week in Pt. 3 of Allies and Mentors: How and Why You Should Develop an Inclusive Approach, we continue with Naval Academy Professor and author, Dr. David Smith dives into what women want when it comes to a male mentor.  This talk took place at the Better Man Conference 2017 and you can read the transcript below or watch the video.

David began the series discussing a mentor/mentee relationship at work being a two-way street and shared the benefits to both women and men when male leaders mentor women in the workplace.  Last week, in Pt. 2, he shared why guys sometimes are hesitant or sit on the sidelines and don’t mentor women, shares stories and references a toolbox for mentoring women. The first two parts are available on the main page of our blog and entitled, Allies and Mentors: How and Why You Should Develop an Inclusive Approach and Why Some Guys Don't Mentor Women At Work.  

Dr. David Smith:

A lot of people say, “You know, you’re two dudes writing about gender and mentoring to other guys….um...you do realize you’re dudes, right?” And we're like, “Yeh, we kinda get that.”  And they were like, “Well, where’s the women’s voice in this?” and I'm we’re like, “Wow, that’s a great point.”  So we went out and with a lot of help we were able to interview almost 30 of the most highflying women across industries and professions in this country.  It was a very humbling experience to sit there and be able to do this but you’re gonna hear their voices, I'm going to share their stories with you today about what they said works for them and in particular what they said about their male mentors.  And then we went back and interviewed their male mentors and asked them about how that relationship worked, so I'm going to share that with you.

Here comes some of the best practices and we're going to run through these quickly so I can keep Ray on time here today.  



First one, number 1, every single senior woman we talked to said, “Men have got to start listening!”  And I was like, “Huh?? What do you mean ‘listening’?”  (They said), “Don't listen for the problem and then try to fix it.”  Anybody hear that one before?  I'm that way and I’ll just be very open.  I have to work against this one...to listen to somebody, not listening for the problem, but truly listening to what they were saying today and not trying to fix them.  Sometimes our mentees don't need us to fix them, they don't need us to solve a problem, they don't need us to necessarily give them guidance in some cases.  Especially for people who don't look like white men. Sometimes you just need to affirm that you belong.

We come across this in a lot of traditionally white male organizations out there where people run into the imposter syndrome, right?  And even white men, we do run into this as well but the imposter syndrome is much more likely to be out there for people of color, for people who are not men.  Sometimes we just need to affirm that they belong and not make assumptions about who they are, where they’ve been, what they’ve done and try to listen and understand their own experiences.  So listen is the first one.


Deputy Robert Lightfoot, NASA Administartor (Photo Credit: NASA)

Deputy Robert Lightfoot, NASA Administartor (Photo Credit: NASA)

This is Robert Lightfoot (motions to photo).  At the time Robert was the Deputy NASA Administrator, (which he had) been for a long time.  I can't remember if they’ve confirmed him yet as the new administrator, but he’s been the acting administrator for NASA for quite a while now. Robert mentored a lot of very senior women and it was interesting because we kept getting his name, (it) kept coming up over and over from women in National Security broadly. So obviously he had been doing a lot of mentoring out there.  We talked to him about some of his favorite stories and I'm going to share a couple with you.  He was at a hiring meeting with the hiring committee and they’re at the final stages, the last final candidates and they’re in the throws of the final decision...and it was clear that the woman out of the three candidates was the most qualified, most experienced, best candidate for the job and everybody was in agreement.

But Robert being the gender savvy guy he is, being in touch with all of this, he said..and he shared this with us, he said, “You know what, she just had a baby.  This job requires a lot of travel and maybe that’s not the right thing for her at this point.”  And he said, fortunately for him, he had a female colleague on the committee sitting across the table from him with fire coming out of her eyes….daggers going into his throat and she said,  “Robert, I'm pretty sure she knows that there’s a lot of travel involved in this job and I damn well know that she understands that she had a baby two weeks ago….(audience laughs) so why don't we let her make the decision?” And it was like, “Ah, this light went on.  Wow! Don't assume.  Don't assume what she needs, what her experiences are, what is best for her.  Let her figure that out, she can do that.”

Robert shared a lot of his wonderful stories as a male mentor and he was very humble about doing that.  But I'm going continue on for the sake of time going on to the next time.  But “Don't assume” is a big one that Robert was giving us.

Emotions, crying, challenging...again, the stereotype that often men fall into that we see women as being this weaker, more emotional person and that I can't do anything that challenges them, I can't give them all this hard critical feedback because they might cry.  Is that true? Reality is that, the science shows us that women do produce more tears.  It’s not their fault.  They produce hormones called prolactin that actually produces tears.  How we express our tears is a very social cultural phenomenon.  In Western society, where we are, boys are shamed for crying. It’s not appropriate, “Don't be a little girl.” boys are taught.  People have probably heard that in this room.  What about for little girls? Not so much, right? They are allowed to cry, it’s okay.  So there is again a cultural component to this where the expression of tears means different things.


General Dana Born, United States Air Force (Photo Credit: United States Air Force)

General Dana Born, United States Air Force (Photo Credit: United States Air Force)

Let me give you a story.  General Dana Born, who was in the United States Air Force...she has since retired, she is now at the Harvard Kennedy School.  Dana gave us a great story.  She told us about one of her mentors and her boss at the time...when she would get really excited or passionate about a project, she would kind of tear up a little bit.  There’s probably a lot of us out there, men and women, that do this.  We get really passionate, excited about something.  We have a little bit of what you might call, “A loss of control” or whatever of your tears and you tear up a little bit.  It made her boss really uncomfortable, really uncomfortable.  Why? Because again as boys we’re socialized not to cry.  So we don't really understand as we've never really grown up understanding what to do when somebody else cries, we feel like we’ve offended them.

So he started...when he would come in to talk to her about something that he knew she was going to be excited and passionate about, he would come in and say, “Alright Dana, I need your advice, I need your guidance on this but unemotionally, what do you think?” It was really this big mood killer for her, in particular.


Guys will pull punches, too.  You ever done this to somebody? Hold them back, feel like you’re protecting them?  Some of us look at it almost like chivalry.  You can look at it from a lot of different perspectives but sometimes we'll pull punches to save people, to protect them from something.  But what we're really doing is we're not empowering them right?  We’re not allowing them to experience the challenges that help us to grow and we all know that we've failed along the way, that’s how we grow.

Let me give you a military story.  Our hardest school that nobody wants to ever go through more than once, if once, is what we call SERE School.  It’s an acronym for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape.  It’s a week long...the last 24 hours you’re in prisoner of war camp.  And it’s real.  It feels very real.  I’ve personally been through it….and trust me, you don't want to go through it more than once.  But the whole purpose behind going through that last 24 hours is...and you’re doing this with those trained psychologists who are doing the part of our captors in there, and they’re looking to break us down physically and emotionally.  I mean you’re tired, you’re exhausted, you’re starving and you’re under a lot of stress to not break.  And they will break you down while you’re there.



When we first integrated women into the military and they started going to this school, guess what, the women started to break down, got emotional, started crying...instructors backed away. Fortunately there’s  enough people there watching what’s going on to say, “ Ho! Time out, we got to stop this.”  They pulled the instructors back in, they had a little pow-wow and said, “Hey, that cannot happen.”  Why?  Because when they need the training, when they need that experience the most, they won't have it.  Certainly as a prisoner of war, God forbid, for any of them, that’s not the time to figure out what I didn't get because some male instructor pulled a punch because he was afraid that I was crying.  We talk a lot about this in male dominated professions about, “Hey, you got to challenge your mentees, right?  You got to give them the same opportunities and challenges that you do for the men that work for you.”

So what does this look like to you? (motions to photo of two well dressed men at a bar having drinks) Two guys at a bar...drinks after work. They could be mentoring, maybe, who knows, they could be.  We do that a lot.  What about this? (motions to photo of a well dressed man and woman having a drink at a bar)  It could be mentoring or it could be something more romantic or a date, right?  This is one of the challenges when we think about men maybe stepping up and mentoring women in particular.  How do we mentor women, where do we mentor women, when do we mentor women....


Contact [email protected] to learn about INCLUSIONARY LEADERSHIP training, GENDER PARTNERSHIP training, COACHING or CONSULTING for your organization.


Better Man Conference 2018: Call To Speakers, Panelists, and More

We invite business professionals, concerned citizens, expert practitioners and allies to share their voices for the 3rd annual Better Man Conference. We are securing dates and locations soon, but looking forward to these timelines/locations:

  • BMC San Francisco- October 26, 2018 (Application deadline August 15th, 2018)
  • BMC New York- November 6, 2018 (Application deadline August 15th, 2018)

We expect 150+ people in NYC and 250+ in SF. Previous registrants were 60/40 Men/Women and included:

Better Man Conference 2017

Better Man Conference 2017

  • Executives, Leaders, Emerging Leaders, Change Makers.
  • Human Resources, Diversity Staff and Council Leaders.
  • Learners and Leaders seeking workforce inclusion.,

The conference theme, STAND UP. SPEAK UP. IT’S TIME. is intended to educate, inspire and move male allies into action in support of women and target groups. Given the context of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, the focus of The Better Man Conference is on galvanizing men inside organizations by providing them with the tools to support partnership and the role that healthy masculinity plays.

Learn more or apply here.


Men and women, we encourage you to pass this along to women you think might be a good fit.


The WITI Summit, June 10-12, 2018 in San Jose, is the premier global event for women in technology, held in the heart of Silicon Valley.  The theme for 2018 will be “Visionaries Designing Tomorrow’ Tech Markets & Culture Today.”  Executives, entrepreneurs and technology thought leaders from around the world convene to build and expand strong connections in a welcoming environment and to foster women’s success in all technology related fields and organizations.  Special highlights include a Business & Technology Expo; the annual Women In Technology Hall Of Fame Ceremony & Awards; an Executive Auction; Coaching Tracks; Interactive Workshops; and Industry-Based Network panels focusing on the hottest technology areas for women. 1,800+ attendees from 6 continents. Use code WOMEN for $200 discount off the prevailing cost of a 3-day pass.  Register here: www.witi.com/summit


2017 BMC Sponsors as of now (2).png


bmc marketing partners doc (1).png