More Men Should Be Mentoring Women
By: W. Brad Johnson, PhD & David G. Smith, PhD
Making the case for why men should step up to actively and deliberately mentor the talented junior women around them.
More and more, women are encouraged to “find a mentor.” Sometimes this advice is delivered with dire warnings about the negative career fallout associated with going it alone.
Indeed, mountains of research evidence on the value of mentorship on a host of career outcomes reveals that well-mentored junior career adults make more money, get more promotions, enjoy wider networks, and report higher satisfaction with both their careers and their personal lives. Women who are well-mentored are less likely to be shut out of power-holding roles and doomed to midlevel mediocrity.
So what’s the problem you ask? Like men, women should just get out and find that mentor. Well, not so fast. It turns out that in many professions and organizations, women face far more hurdles to initiating mentorships, and when women do find invested mentors, they reap fewer benefits from the relationship than their male counterparts.
One problem is that senior women—potential same-gender mentors—are often in short supply. This is especially true in male-centric contexts such as STEM, finance, advertising, tech and the military. And even when they are present, senior women may be reluctant to mentor junior women, particularly when the environment for women is competitive.
But a dearth of same-gender mentors is not the whole story. The truth is that many promising junior women are left on the roadside of opportunity at work because men, often plentiful among organizational leaders, don’t notice them, and when they do, don’t take initiative to reach out and initiate powerful developmental relationships like they do with men.
Why don’t more guys step up to the plate and mentor women? Sadly, the reasons are legion. Sometimes pernicious biases and stereotypes about women factor in. For example, if men have been socialized to see women as “nice,” “caring,” and “fragile,” they might find it hard to perceive a junior woman as a capable, take charge, rising star in the organization.
Alternatively, if he assumes that all women will eventually exit their careers to attend to families, he may implicitly see all junior women as a bad investment. There are other reasons guys avoid mentoring women. Some men are worried about false perceptions or gossip around the office (they’ll assume we’re involved romantically).
Other men are simply unfamiliar with how to “do” close, caring, intimate friendships with women at work without sexualizing the relationship in some way. The unknown makes them anxious. And, of course, there are a few men who worry their girlfriend or spouse would become jealous if they began devoting considerable time to developing a junior woman at work.
In Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women (2016), we make the case to men that they should step up to actively and deliberately mentor some of the talented junior women around them. Again, the reasons why men should mentor women are numerous, but here are three key rationale:
First, evidence from businesses of all stripes indicates that those companies that are most gender inclusive in senior leadership roles are more profitable and competitive for the long haul. This is a bottom line dollars and cents issue. Organizations that not only attract women, but skillfully develop and retain them, are geared for long term success.
Second, the research evidence is unequivocal: well-mentored women thrive in their organizations and their careers more broadly.
Finally, it may come as a surprise to men but mentoring women is good for them, too. Men who enter cross-gender mentorships with genuine humility and a learning orientation often report learning as much or more form their mentees as their mentees learn from them.
Male mentors can develop better communication skills and emotional intelligence through their collegial relationships with women at work. And men who become better listeners, more empathic, and more gender-aware are inevitably likely to become better dads and spouses/partners. In the end, men who mentor women often and well will become better men.
Brad Johnson, PhD is professor of psychology in the Department of Leadership, Ethics, and Law at the United States Naval Academy, and a faculty associate in the Graduate School of Education at Johns Hopkins University. A clinical psychologist and former Lieutenant Commander in the Navy’s Medical Service Corps, Dr. Johnson served as a psychologist at Bethesda Naval Hospital and the Medical Clinic at Pearl Harbor where he was the division head for psychology. He is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and recipient of the Johns Hopkins University Teaching Excellence Award.
David Smith, PhD is an active duty U.S. Navy Captain and permanent military professor in the Department of Leadership, Ethics, and Law at the United States Naval Academy having served four years as the chair. A former Navy Pilot, Dr. Smith led diverse organizations of women and men culminating in command of a squadron in combat and flew more than 3,000 hours over 19 years including combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a sociologist trained in military sociology and social psychology, he focuses his research in gender, work, and family issues including dual career families, military families, women in the military, and retention of women.