Why men should mentor women – United States Naval Academy professors W. Brad Johnson and David Smith on how men can step up

David Smith and W. Brad Johnson, United States Naval Academy

Men need to let go of inherent assumptions and biases about women to establish effective mentoring relationships – and often, that can mean addressing uncomfortable truths, according to the authors of a new book on the subject.

The role of men has never been under more scrutiny in the ongoing debate and discussion around diversity and gender equity in the marketing industries.

With businesses now more aware of the benefits of diversity, it has become clear that both genders need to do more than ‘talk the talk’ and commit to actions in order to affect change.

Mentoring junior members of staff is one way in which businesses can invest in the future and ensure everyone is given the same opportunities. Mentoring young women gives them the tools they need to succeed in their chosen career, and the confidence to advance in the direction they want to go in.

The problem is, it can often be difficult for young women to find a mentor. Often that’s due to a lack of women in leadership positions in traditionally male-dominated industries, or because the women leaders who are there can’t take on the responsibility of mentoring all of the junior women.

But for more men to step up to the plate and mentor women, they must address their ingrained biases and assumptions, according to the authors of a new book tackling the subject, ‘Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women’, penned by United States Naval Academy professors W. Brad Johnson and David Smith.

Ahead of their talk at The 3% Conference in New York City on November 3-4, The Drum caught up with Johnson and Smith to discuss the often-complex landscape of men mentoring women, what men can learn from mentoring, and how both parties can get over any uneasiness they may have with the arrangement.

“Guys can respond to women in search of mothering, try to romanticise a relationship, or can try and father women – all of these things can undermine a really good mentor relationship,” says Johnson, discussing what he and co-author Smith call the ‘man scripts’ of behaviour that men must be aware of before they should engage in a mentoring relationship.

These ‘scripts’ are based on implicit bias men may have internalised about women, such as the belief that women need to be cared for, or that they need men to fix things for them, which can lead to an unfortunate father-daughter script between mentor and mentee.

“We encourage men to think very honestly and carefully about their previous relationships with women at work,” says Johnson. “What's the typical map or story? Do they tend to swoop in and become fathering, for example?”

While awareness of this behaviour is the only way to guarantee change, Smith admits it doesn’t always come naturally for men in leadership positions.

“Eliciting feedback from a junior woman is counter-stereotypical and counter-intuitive in many ways [for senior men] but they can't be the ones just talking all the time. It can't be a one way conversation.”

Escaping the boys’ club

Whether it’s intentional or not, exclusion still persists in the workplace, with meetings taking place over a round of drinks or decisions being made on a golf course – activities that women may not be invited to participate in, or indeed may not want to participate in.

So if the male to male mentorships of days gone by have taken place in the chummy confines of a round of golf, how can male mentors avoid alienating women?

Johnson is unequivocal in his belief that men are responsible for making sure that environments are inclusive for the women they’re mentoring.

“Guys need to be asking if we're doing something important, where decisions are being made, it's got to be at an inclusive location. When mentoring a woman, if something like this is being arranged that's going to exclude her, I've got to be the one to stand up and say that’s not OK and speak to leadership about that. I need to make sure she has a place at the table. These disparities are everywhere, and I think guys are in a position to recognise it and say something about it.”

Smith adds: “Part of that is just getting men to look around themselves and say who's here and who's not, and questioning if that’s OK.”

Coaching individual strengths

Whether it’s Sir Martin Sorrell claiming women need to be more ‘aggressive’ to succeed, or former Saatchi & Saatchi chairman Kevin Roberts suggesting women aren’t as ambitious as their male counterparts, male prescription over how women should behave, act and think is still prevalent.

Smith says that while coaching women, men should value authenticity over any prescribed ideal behaviours and let go of any gendered preconceptions about how women should act.

“You've got to work with her on what her individual strengths are. If her leadership style is that way, work with it. She has to be authentic. The aggressive prescription is not valuable. I think in general, in the workplace today, most peers and subordinates don’t appreciate aggressive behaviour. It's not valued as much anymore.”

One of the things men should remember when mentoring women is that they are not just merely imparting their own wisdom – they should realise they can learn something too, according to Johnson.

“If she's got a more collaborative approach and higher in emotional intelligence, you're going to benefit from this mentorship if you maintain a learning orientation. Learn what you can from the way she approaches challenges – do not try and make her in your image.”

Tackling would-be gossipers

Johnson and Smith also raise the importance of maintaining transparency when it comes to male/female mentorships – to avoid the sad reality of any office gossip or murmurings of an inappropriate relationship.

"Sometimes these relationships can be fraught with concern in terms of what people may be thinking in the organisation – are they involved sexually or romantically? Guys, when they are mentoring women have got to need to be aware of that – you can't pretend that doesn't exist. So you need to do something to make the mentor relationship very transparent," says Johnson.

This could mean ensuring meetings take place in professional settings and during work hours, or simply being open with colleagues, peers and spouses about the mentorship.

The more that men championing women becomes the norm, the less it will attract any negative perceptions, says Smith.

"We have to start overcoming some of the stereotypes we have of 'what will people think if I speak up or if I champion a woman? Will they think we have a relationship or there's something going on?' If we can walk the talk here, people will begin to realise no, that's just what we do, we want to push forward the best, most talented people and we don't do it because they're a man or a woman – they're just the best, most talented people for the job."

The Drum is partnering with The 3% Conference, which takes place in New York City on November 3-4.

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