Why Some Guys Don't Mentor Women At Work

Last week Naval Academy Professor and author of Athena Rising, How and Why Men Should Mentor Women, Dr. David Smith discussed 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.  This week in Pt. 2 Allies and Mentors: How and Why You Should Develop an Inclusive Approach which took place at the Better Man Conference 2017, he shares why guys sometimes are hesitant or sit on the sidelines and don’t mentor women, shares stories and references a toolbox for mentoring women. Next week he'll dive into what women want when it comes to a male mentor.  

Dr. David Smith:

So what about men?  (Points to screen) If you can’t read that it says, “I think I’m supposed have a mentor but I don’t know why.”  So the challenge is that....and many women say that, “I’m going to go out and find a male mentor, what am I look for and why can’t I find a male mentor?”  So when Brad and I did our research for our book we found a host of different reasons why guys sometimes are hesitant, sometimes sit on the sidelines and don’t mentor women or people that look like them, just in general.

We talked about unconscious bias a lot today. This comes out in stereo types.  If I see women as not being tough enough or leader like material, why would I invest my time to mentor them because it takes a lot of time and energy to mentor somebody well, so I might be hesitant in doing that.  I might look at them as a woman, some men may say, “Well….as a woman at work, how can she be committed to work, she should be committed to her family.”  And then if she does put in all the extra hours, God forbid all 80 hours, then she’s a really lousy mom and spouse, right?  She gets judged the other direction too so we see the double bind plays out in lots of different ways.  So unconscious bias is a part of that.  But there’s more right? 


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There’s other reason guys are on the sidelines.  Some of us are really anxious about having an intimate non-sexual relationship with a woman at work.  As a guy I know what the relationship looks like with my wife, I’m very comfortable with that.  I know what the relationship looked like with my mother and was very comfortable with that.  And I have a daughter and I know what that relationship looks like and I’m very comfortable with that.  But going to work and having, again this very close personal relationship…because again mentoring is more than just the professional.  It’s the wholistic perspective of mentoring somebody.  This close personal relationship with somebody at work, a woman in this case, some guys get really anxious about that.  So there is a little bit of anxiety we need to be aware of. 



Um, perceptions…what will my co workers think, what will my peers think, what will my boss think, if I start spending time with this younger, more junior woman…..people will talk, oh my God.  What about...in some cases we have different levels of relationships with our spouses and our partners out there…what will they think if I start spending all this time with again, this younger, more junior person at work.  And this works both ways on the cross gender by the way.  Again, how will they feel about that.  So sometimes we are worried about perceptions out there. 

And then finally some guys are just worried about like, look I want to do the right thing and I do want to mentor who don’t look like me but in the case of women in particular, what if I say the wrong thing, what if I do the wrong thing, oh my God, I might offend the person, I might…next thing you know I’m back in to HR with a sexual harassment claim.  So these things that guys talk about in certain circles, in certain spaces where they feel comfortable talking about this and it’s worth while to acknowledge that.


Lieutenant Virginia Brodie, United States Marine Corp. (Photo Credit: MOAA.org)

Lieutenant Virginia Brodie, United States Marine Corp. (Photo Credit: MOAA.org)

So let me tell you a story.  I’m going to tell you a lot of stories today but this is one of them.  This is Lieutenant Virginia Brodie and she’s United States Marine Corp. today.   Virginia was one of my students and one of my co-author Brad’s student as well and so we got to know her pretty well at the Naval Academy and we used her as a bit of inspiration for how to talk about this idea of perceiving others and in particular perceptions of women in a very traditionally male, hyper masculine organization like the military.  When you meet Virginia and oh by the way, she was one of the smartest, brightest students I ever had.  But beyond that, when you first meet her, fierce warrior is not the words that came to your mouth.  She’s about 5”2’ … and had this infectious smile and was not the person you said, “Oh, this is going to be this fierce warrior that will defend our nation.”  But she is.  And the thing that we talked about a lot, was remembering that she is going to go lead sailors and Marines, mostly Marines for her…in to combat…and she is.  And it is up to us as her instructors, her professors, her leaders, her mentors to look at her and recognize the potential and the awesome responsibility she is taking on and to develop her to the utmost.  Anything less than that would just be wrong.  So we think about Virginia and we think about the term Athena and where it comes from.  Athena the Goddess of war which everyone kind of knows but also the Goddess of reason.  She was this fierce warrior and a diplomat.  And so we think that embodies that perception that we think is useful for men to begin to think about how do I perceive the women that I work with.


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So let me tell you a little bit about the book. The first half of the book is really about making the why case about why we need to be mentoring women and understanding all the basics, the evidence out there in a nice, kind of fun light way about cross gender relationships, broadly.  The second half of the book is about the toolbox, the manual for mentoring women.  Guys like tools..it’s short nuggets, it’s very useful, and very practical, (and there are) good outcomes and takeaways in the book.  But while we were writing the book it was really interesting...there were several things that were going on in the news that you may remember...one was the Nobel Prize winning scientist, Tim Hunt.  Remember Tim Hunt....that name? You may not remember his name but let me remind you of what he said after winning the Nobel Prize.  He said as he was being interviewed, he was a physicist, I think, they asked him,“What do you think about women working in the lab?”  And he says, “Oh no, can't have any women working in the lab.”  And they’re like, “Why!?”  And he said, “Because three things happen when you allow women to enter the lab.  You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and if you give them critical feedback, they’re gonna cry.”  And then he was shunned and we haven't seen him since, not necessarily a bad thing.  That was one of the things that was happening at the time we were writing the book.

The second one is not as widely known but in the Washington Post they broke a story about congressional staffers and in particular, female staffers, were informally not being allowed to be seen with their congressmen after hours, riding alone in cars, in certain places in the buildings with their congressmen.  In effect, they couldn't do their job.  Their male colleagues on the other hand (had) free reign and free access.  It got to the point where it was really disadvantaging and the Washington Post broke the story about how we're holding them back in that way.

Athena Rising, How and Why Men Should Mentor Women written by W. Brad Johnson, PhD and David Smith, PhD

Athena Rising, How and Why Men Should Mentor Women written by W. Brad Johnson, PhD and David Smith, PhD

The last story I'll share with you is what happened...and this hurts because it’s close to home with the military...again, you may not have seen this but in the Marine Corps they fired a female colonel.  She was the commanding officer of a recruit training battalion down in Parris Island. You what to know what they fired her for?  Being too assertive and aggressive.  I worked with a lot of marines...nobody has ever accused them of being too assertive or too aggressive.  And so it was a kind of the coup de gras as we were thinking about this and writing the book.


The last thing I would share with you is a lot of people say, “You know, you’re two dudes writing about gender and mentoring to other guys....you do realize you’re dudes, right?”  And we're like, “Yeh, we kinda get that!”  And they’re like, “Well, where’s the women’s voice in this?” and 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 going to 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.  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.

So 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.


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


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