David Smith, associate professor of sociology at the U.S. Naval War College, and Brad Johnson, professor of psychology at the United States Naval Academy, argue that it is vital for more men to mentor women in the workplace. In the post-#MeToo world, some men have shied away from cross-gender relationships at work. But Smith and Johnson say these relationships offer big gains to mentees, mentors, and organizations. They offer their advice on how men can be thoughtful allies to the women they work with. They are the authors of Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review, I’m Sarah Green Carmichael.
Over the past year, the MeToo movement has cost powerful men their jobs in industries like media, entertainment, and politics. Now, we’re starting to see a backlash against that movement, especially in male-dominated industries.
Our guests today have both worked in a very male-dominated industry – the military.
DAVID SMITH: Our own experiences came into play here in watching how women, in particular in the military, experienced the integration and certainly some of the inequities that go on in their own lives and careers. And one of the things that stuck out to us – and we find it as well in lots of organizations today across our society – is that there are lots of structural things put in place when it comes to gender in the workplace, but often we don’t talk to men about how those relationships should be managed, what they should look like. And we felt that it was really important that we write something to engage men in particular about what this should look like and how we can do this. That gender inequities are not a women’s issue; that this is something that really we reframe as a leadership issue.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: That’s David Smith. He’s an associate professor of sociology at the U.S. Naval War College. We’re also joined by Brad Johnson, a professor of psychology at the United States Naval Academy.
They are the authors of the book “Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women.”
Brad and Dave, thank you for joining us.
BRAD JOHNSON: Thanks Sarah, good to be here.
DAVID SMITH: Thanks for having us here.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: I have heard sort of comments from friends of mine who work in male-dominated industries that at their organizations, there is a real drive to sort of quietly have more women just mentor women – like, let’s not make the guys do this. Let’s just have all the women kind of report to other women or be mentored by other women. Why does that not work? Why is it so important to have men mentoring women?
DAVID SMITH: Well, part of it’s just a plain numbers game and certainly as you find more traditionally male-dominated organizations and professions [and] industries out there today, the numbers just don’t support that. And in places like the military and tech and STEM and finance, you’re going to find there just aren’t as many women around, especially senior women – as you go up in the ranks – to mentor the junior women coming in.
The other, I think more obvious answer as well is that men tend to be the stakeholders – the power holders – in the organizations because they’re in the positions of leadership where they can make a difference. And so having women, again, there may be enough women to mentor other women there, but they may not be in the same positions of power to offer the same opportunities that these other men can do.
BRAD JOHNSON: Yeah. And I would also just add that guys need to be aware that when women are mentored by men – especially in traditionally male organizations – they tend to make more money; they get more promotions; they have clearly tangible career outcomes that are often better. And is this because guys are better mentors? No. It’s just simply as Dave said, because they have different kinds of positions and more power.
I also just want to note that when a guy stands up and publicly promotes and sponsors a woman, we find research showing that his end-of-year evaluations actually go up. When a woman is a public sponsor for a junior woman, her evals are more likely to suffer. You know, she’s viewed as showing favoritism; he’s viewed as a champion for diversity. So there’s even some inequity there, but all the more reason men have got to be willing to engage here.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: That kind of statistic really makes my head explode, yeah. So let’s shift gears now – maybe talk a little bit about how men can do this. How can they do a good job? What are some of the constructive steps that men can take to start being better mentors to women?
DAVID SMITH: You know we had the great opportunity when we wrote “Athena Rising” to interview successful, powerful women across every industry and profession. And the number one skill that every woman mentioned was that their male mentors were great listeners. We delved down a little deeper into that, “What do you mean by they’re great listeners?” Well, they listen with the intent to learn, like they have something to learn from me, that they don’t have all the answers, that they’re not making assumptions that because I’m a woman I must need, want… whatever. Fill in the blank there for them. Listening to understand, right? Listening with a purpose as opposed to thinking about what it is I’m going to tell you next.
BRAD JOHNSON: A couple others that really stood out. The whole issue of affirmation: That, you know, in many environments especially that are mostly male-centric, women get messages that they don’t really fit, they don’t belong; that they’re unicorns. And try and counteract it, you know, say, affirming things. Say, “You know, man, we were so smart to hire you.” Or, “That was terrific what you said in the meeting.”
I just need to go out of the way to make sure that I’m pushing back on that imposter messaging she’s getting. And then there’s been a lot of discussion in the literature this last year about the fact that women might get, you know, mentoring, but they don’t get enough sponsorship. And so part of the messaging we got from the women we interviewed was, hey, if you really want to mentor me, you need to be my networker. You need to open doors. You need to introduce me to people.
One of the people that shared a terrific story about this, when we interviewed her was Sheryl Sandberg and she said my first mentor out of college was Secretary of the Treasury, and everywhere we went he would introduce me to people on the international scale and say, “This is Sheryl Sandberg. She’s a rock star. She was number one in economics at Harvard. I couldn’t do this without her.” And after the third or fourth time, Cheryl pulled him aside and said, “Hey, Larry stop. That’s embarrassing.” And he said, “Sheryl, this is how it begins. This is sponsorship. This is how things take off for you and you need to become more comfortable with me doing this.” So the sponsorship piece is important. If you really want to be a mentor, for anybody but especially a woman, you know ask yourself, are you talking about her when she’s not even in the room? Are you her raving fan? And I think guys need to pay attention to that.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: You wrote an article for Hbr.org where you talked about the importance of mentors challenging their mentees – really pushing them out of their comfort zone and not going easy on them just because they do have that close, trusting relationship. What does that look like when it’s working well?
DAVID SMITH: Well, that’s a great point and something that’s important in all mentoring relationships, but in particular there’s a gendered aspect that we find we have to talk to men about in terms of how do we view and perceive our female mentees. And a lot of men – in the same ways it’s challenging to give direct critical feedback to women. Men might be thinking that, “Oh, I might hurt her feelings or might make her uncomfortable, and God forbid I make her emotional or cry.” And men do have this thing about tears. And we talked to quite a bit about tears and how to overcome that.
But I think that the challenge piece is really important because it does take, in many cases, getting your mentee in a situation where they are uncomfortable, right? This is were the elements and the area of growth begins. And being able to understand your mentee well enough that you know where those areas of growth are and you can put them in those. Right, and that’s what good mentors do: they open the doors, they find the opportunities, they find those stretch challenges in jobs that help the mentee to grow, and making sure that we do the same for our female mentees that we do for our male mentees out there.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: It’s funny to hear what female tears may feel like to a guy, since of course I have occasionally been the woman who has cried in a situation like that and I can sort of see the panic flit across the face of the older guy sort of giving me the advice that’s hard to hear. Do you see a lot of sort of generational differences on some of this stuff? You know, are the younger male mentors you’ve talked to doing different things than some of the older ones?
BRAD JOHNSON: I think that there is a generational difference. I think that you know it really depends on the individual male, but I think men of a certain generation, older men, can be a bit more reluctant and part of it has to do with, again, something that’s got a flavor of benign sexism. You heard it from Mike Pence, you know, a couple of years ago now where he said, you know, I’d never have a meal, a lunch with a woman who’s not my wife. There can just be that generational kind of segregating the sexes that feels appropriate, but it really undermines a women in terms of their opportunities if senior men are not willing to engage.
Now I will say not clearly, not all older men have that hang up and you do find a lot of guys who are known for being terrific allies.
DAVID SMITH: You know, I think one of the other things that – the differences in generations between younger men and older men is some of the way that we socialize our boys today. I think about the way we socialize our kids versus the way that I was socialized when I grew up. And certainly I think boys have different scripts today – social scripts to follow – if you think about, how interacting with a woman at work might be a social script that, I can say that, you know, probably the older generations didn’t have as many of those. They had to learn those once they left home.
And so for some of them, if they don’t have that script, they don’t know what it means to interact with a woman at work in a way that they’ve been taught, is they get kind of anxious about it. Right? And so one of the things we know again about anxiety is that we’re going to avoid it, right? Because we want to relieve that stress.
Or the other thing is they make fall back on a more – understanding of a social script that they do know and that might look like the, for example, the father-daughter one that we hear with older men in particular. And again, that’s a social script that I think a lot of people find to be very positive. I mean, I have a daughter, I think we have a great relationship. But it’s probably not appropriate in the workplace in a lot of ways. And then certainly we find in a lot of very traditional male professions out there where the chivalrous perspective comes into play as well – more of the benevolent sexism – and that’s kind of the knight in shining armor who’s there to rescue women. And again, women don’t need to be rescued in the workplace. That’s disempowering; it’s not giving the same opportunities as men to grow and develop.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: As I understand it – and you guys can tell me if I’m, if there needs to be more nuance here – but hostile sexism is kind of the “Make me a sandwich” and worse, you know, how we think of sexism when we think of it. But benevolent sexism when you compare that to chivalry, that might confuse people a little bit. So how do you define that term?
DAVID SMITH: Well, benevolent sexism, again, it sounds and appears to be very positive in how we approach the interaction between men and women. But in effect what it’s doing is it’s separating or denying or in other words, to put a woman up on a pedestal, right? To treat her in a way that’s keeping her from the same options and opportunities that we’re doing for men, right, is effectively doing the same thing as hostile sexism, where we’re separating and we’re discriminating on the basis of sex.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Like, I’m not going to give her this assignment because it requires a lot of late nights and you know, she has kids at home and that kind of thing. But then she doesn’t get the assignment.
DAVID SMITH: Absolutely. Yeah. Instead of asking her.
BRAD JOHNSON: It undermines her.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Are there things like that where the male mentors you work with have been kind of socialized to act a certain way and maybe in the process of mentoring a woman, they’re now realizing that that is not always the best way to be? Or it’s kind of expanding their sense of what they can do?
BRAD JOHNSON: Yeah. You know, the way the way guys are with each other occasionally, you know, all the bro humor, you know, you got leave that outside. That just doesn’t help. The competitive instinct – you know, a lot of guys when they get together, even mentor-mentee, you can see the competitiveness, you know, the bragging and all of that stuff. And again, not helpful and women will tell you, I don’t appreciate that, it doesn’t help me at all.
And then the whole location issue, the where – where do we meet, where do we get together? You know, if you’re a guy who tends to do all his mentoring in the evening over dinner and drinks, you’re probably not going to be mentoring many women. Women tell us: I’m just not comfortable with that. I don’t want gossip to start. I don’t want people to think that I’m sleeping my way to the top – and that’s totally not the case, but I don’t want the gossip to begin.
So guys got to think about this – create a level playing field. There was a vice president of Goldman Sachs who had a wonderful policy about this. He had a breakfast/lunch-only policy for mentoring. So he’d have his assistant only book is mentoring meetings over breakfast and lunch at a cafe. He found within just a few years he was mentoring sort of equally men and women and that was a big change for him because women felt comfortable with that.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: I’m wondering now, we’ve talked about some things to do and some things to avoid and I’m a little worried that the men listening might be starting to think: this is all so much work. I don’t want to walk on eggshells all the time. Maybe I will just avoid this after all. What do you say to guys who were like, “Gosh, there’s a lot of rules here.”
BRAD JOHNSON: Yeah. So I think over the last year or two, Dave and I have actually grown a little more impatient with those guys. There are different reasons men may avoid women right now. I think there are some guys who are using Me Too as an excuse just to stay on the sidelines and not engage. You know, honestly, they may not be a great loss when it comes to the fight for more equity.
So, you know, if you’re a guy who’s anxious and you’re worried about engaging: what will people say, will there be gossip? Will she misperceive what I’m saying? The evidence is really clear: if you have anxiety, there’s only one treatment for that, that’s exposure. So you’ve got to lean in, you have to have more coffees and more lunches and more conversations with women and do it publicly. If that’s your brand, if that’s who you are in the workplace, people don’t talk about that guy. He is just known for being a great collaborator, equally for men and women. And that’s just not a guy who has to have anxiety.
DAVID SMITH: I think one other thing that we often remind men, because I think it’s important that they understand there is a benefit for themselves, right? So we obviously know a lot of the advantages that Brad mentioned earlier about what women get out of great mentoring. The organization certainly wins because we’re keeping talented people around and we’re developing them into great leaders. But men, there’s something in it for them to, as men mentoring women or being mentored by women, we find that again, they’re getting increased access to information across the organization that they otherwise wouldn’t have. They’re getting this more diverse network. And I think most importantly we see the increase in the interpersonal skills and empathy and EQ out there that translates beyond the workplace into the home. If men want to be more successful in the workplace and at home, right, this is a great opportunity for them. Yes, there’s a little bit of work. Nothing to be scared of though. It’s good for them as well.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: As we’ve been talking about all of this, I realized that we’ve kind of been talking about men and women as these sort of big groups. There’s obviously a lot of variation within each of those groups. How do you give advice on this without kind of being too stereotypical either about what men are like or about what women are like?
DAVID SMITH: I think that’s a great Point. And as you think about in particular, as we’re grouping women into this broader entity out there, that women of color have very different experiences. And I think that’s important. Again, the basics of mentoring I think that we’ve, we’ve been talking about work the same way: understanding people’s individual differences, understanding how their experiences and challenges are very different in the workplace.
I think as mentors and as leaders in our organization, we’re going to learn that much more about their experiences. And you know, race is just one, right? There are many elements of diversity that we can learn from as we think about mentoring people who don’t look like us broadly out there. And encouraging us to take a moment to look at our own network of, again, the people that we mentor as well as who I’m being mentored by. I think both are just as important as you think about who you’re learning from, right? Whether from more senior experience or your mentee more junior experience, that you need to have a very diverse network of people so you can, you’re getting these different perspectives. You’re getting different information, you’re making yourself more effective both as a mentor and as a leader in your organization.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So what about – you’ve sort of talked about the importance of being public about your mentorship and intervening in public as needed, but also not rescuing women. If you see – if there’s another guy in your office who’s not very enlightened on this stuff and he’s making inappropriate comments or in other ways kind of being you know, a little bit backwards on some of this stuff. How do you suggest approaching other guys about their approaches to this issue?
DAVID SMITH: Yeah, that’s a great point. And I think that there’s a few ways to think about it. Obviously it’s situationally dependent, but one of the things that we know is that if in the moment, right, if we react, we can correct. W e can react to something that happens and it’s really important because – especially if you’re in a situation where there’s other people watching, right, and other people listening. Whether that’s other men, it’s other women, you’re affecting what they’re thinking and their perceptions about what’s going on there.
And one of the things that we know is that men have a higher expectation or level of acceptance of sexism. They think that everybody else around them – their peers – have this really high level of acceptance of sexism and sexist behavior, for example, and that that’s why they’re not going to say anything. They’re not going to intervene in this case. The reality is that most men don’t. Most men are just as offended or put off by it as the rest of the women there, of course, as well.
The other side of that is – and this kind of behavior, what we call good ally behavior – and this goes not just for men and women, right, for allies of all sorts in the workplace – is that it helps the non-dominant group, right? In this case, we’re talking about women in the workplace, that it helps them to understand that they have higher, you know, they can have the confidence next time to speak up, right? When they see something like this happen, they don’t feel as much self-shame – in other words, that I brought this on upon myself in some way. And have more confidence and self-esteem in themselves. So it does affect how they feel in the moment as well as their ability to intervene or interact in the next opportunity.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So I’m wondering if people want to get started, what is the appropriate way to begin? Because you mentioned Sheryl Sandberg earlier. She has said, you know, you don’t just go around asking people to mentor you. That’s not how it works. But, so then if you’re a mentor, I mean presumably you don’t also wander around saying like, “Hello, I would like to mentor you.” So how do you actually get a relationship relationship like this off the ground?
DAVID SMITH: It always sounds better when Brad says it. How you say it, Brad?
BRAD JOHNSON: Yeah. So Dave and I actually do this exercise in workshops where we have men and women at tables and have them practice: How would you initiate, you know, a mentoring conversation? How would that look? Because a lot of guys are anxious about this. I see this talented junior woman, she’s a rock star, but I’m just, I don’t know how to even let her know I think that about her. I don’t want it to be misperceived.
And so in the role plays you’ll have some, you know, well-meaning, but you know, maybe unskilled men just kind of look at this person out of the blue and say, “I’d like to mentor you.” And it’s creepy and it’s weird and you know, she doesn’t know what you mean by that. There’s no context.
So we tell guys, be specific, say, “Hey, I saw you do this at that meeting” or “I watched how you put together this project and that was amazing. I’d be willing to chat with you anytime, you know, I’d love to hear where you’d like to go and if I can be helpful.” You know, so you offer and you know, I think very often she’s likely to take you up on that and have a conversation. Keep it low key; don’t require anything of her. Just make you know, make it clear that you think she’s terrific and has done something very specific that you’ve been noticing and then let her follow up with you.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Well, thank you both. This has been very enlightening for me and I appreciate the time.
BRAD JOHNSON: Yeah, our pleasure, Sarah.
DAVID SMITH: Thanks so much for having us.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: That was Brad Johnson, professor of psychology at the United States Naval Academy, and David Smith, associate professor of sociology at the U.S. Naval War College. They are the co-authors of the book “Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women.”
This episode was produced by Mary Dooe and Curt Nickisch. We got technical and production help from Rob Eckhardt. Adam Buchholz is our audio product manager.
Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Sarah Green Carmichael.
Audio and original post can be found on https://hbr.org/ideacast/2018/10/when-men-mentor-women