Why Some Men Don’t Mentor Women—And What To Do About It

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Guest blogger W. Brad Johnson, PhD, is a professor of psychology in the Department of Leadership, Ethics, and Law at the United States Naval Academy, and a Faculty Associate at Johns Hopkins University. He is the co-author of Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women as well as other books about mentoring.

Fellow guest blogger David G. Smith, PhD, is an active duty U.S. Navy Captain and Associate Professor of Sociology in the Department of Leadership, Ethics, and Law at the United States Naval Academy. He is the co-author of Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women. His research focuses on gender, work, and family issues including dual career families, military families, women in the military, and retention of women.

Although women often hear the mantra, “find yourself a mentor,” this advice can lead to frustration—not to mention real career obstacles—if senior managers and leaders don’t answer the call. In academia, technology, finance, the military, and a host of other industries, there is a concerted effort to bring more women through the front door. But these recruitment efforts are wasted if women are not retained and promoted. The promotion pipeline for women is leaky and a key culprit is a lack of strong mentorship designed to welcome them aboard, affirm they belong, and champion them for ascension to leadership roles.

So, why can’t we leave it to senior women to mentor women? Certainly, same-sex mentorships can be profoundly beneficial for those junior women fortunate enough to find them. But in male-dominated organizations and professions, there may simply not be enough senior women in sight. And let’s face it, those that are may quickly experience burnout if they try to mentor every new female hire. Moreover, if there are too few women in top managerial or C-suite jobs, they often function in a fishbowl, receiving extra scrutiny when they mentor other women. And let’s not forget about the corrosive effects of competition engendered among women when it becomes clear that only a few will get promoted.

When it comes to mentoring women, the math only works when men show up, step up, and take initiative to mentor junior women with the same intentionality and commitment they demonstrate when mentoring junior men. So why does the evidence point to strong hesitancy on the part of many men to initiate and engage with women in the mentor role? When we began writing Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women (2016), we discovered a concerning trend, both in the research evidence bearing on mentorship at work, and in our interviews with key women and men in a variety of organizations. It turns out that men are often missing in action when it comes to first noticing and then deliberately championing talented junior women. We refer to this hesitancy to step in and champion promising women as Reluctant Male Syndrome (RMS). Whether this reluctance is rooted in unconscious bias, confusion about how to approach cross-sex relationships, or phobic anxiety about interacting with the other sex at work, the net outcome is counterproductive for organizational bottom lines. Here are some of the key contributors to RMS:

• Implicit Gender Bias: Most men grew up hearing that girls (women) are “nice, caring, nurturing, and gentle.” Children’s books and socialized gender messages often fail to characterize women as take charge leaders. As a consequence, men can’t easily envision junior women as future occupants of the organization’s C-suites. After all, action-oriented and assertive men are “leaders,” but the same traits in women imply violations of gender norms. An assertive woman is perceived as abrasive and cold-hearted.

• Discomfort with nonsexual intimate relationships: Here is a persistent, yet often unspoken truth: some men simply don’t know how to “do” nonsexual intimacy with women. Often, these guys have very little experience with strong, intimate, cross-sex friendships. They understand the roles of father, son, or spouse, but closeness and emotional connection with a woman outside of those lanes may lead to sexual attraction that scares them away or leads to inappropriate boundary crossings.

• “Man scripts” get in the way: When faced with interacting with women at work, some men resort to outdated and problematic role scripts passed down to them from fathers and other male role models. For instance, some men adopt the “chivalrous knight” or “protective father” script with women they are attempting to mentor. Of course, working to rescue or protect a junior woman can be disempowering, smothering, and ultimately stifle her development as an autonomous leader and decision-maker. These man scripts help reduce a man’s anxiety about what to do in a cross-sex mentorship, but they can easily sabotage a woman’s credibility and her opportunity to compete and prove herself. Worse, man scripts can undermine what could be a strong, reciprocal, and collegial mentorship.

• Concern about public perceptions: Far too many guys are worried that mentoring a woman will—in the words of Bonnie Raitt—“give them something to talk about.” Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg has observed that two guys at a bar after work is probably mentoring. But a man and a woman? It could be mentoring but it could just as easily be a date. The reality is that people do love to gossip. Men have got to accept this and think carefully about the public perception of mentorships with women without becoming so phobic about what others are thinking that they refuse to spend time championing women at work. Men who are transparent about their mentorships and men who routinely mentor women often have little to fear in this area.

• Concerns about spouse or partner perceptions: Believe it or not, some of the men we interviewed shared concern that their spouse might experience some jealousy if she became aware he was spending a significant amount of time with a junior woman on the job. This may be a particular concern among older men from more traditional backgrounds. Still, many of the women we interviewed shared this concern and noted that they often go out of their way to get to know a male mentor’s wife in an effort to dispel any misperceptions about the relationship.

• Fear of doing or saying the wrong thing: A final source of reluctance for some men is that they might “slip” and say or do something that sounds sexist or even harassing. Even if this was not their intent, they sweat the possibility that a comment or gesture might be misinterpreted. Of course, this sort of trepidation about one’s performance in a mentoring connection could make the relationship feel too formal and sterile, or he may avoid engaging closely enough for the mentorship to really prove useful for her.

So, what is the solution to Reluctant Male Syndrome? Here are some strategies and best practices for guys to adopt—and organizations to support—if men are going to become more intentional and effective mentors for women:

• Self-awareness matters: Men are well-served when they work at making conscious their unconscious gender stereotypes and man scripts. Do you tend to draw immediate and gendered conclusions when you encounter a junior woman at work (“she’s nice but probably won’t want to compete for promotion,” or “she seems competent but she’ll probably leave in a few years to start a family”)? If so, work at catching yourself and rethinking automatic assumptions. And if you notice that you always seem to default to becoming “fatherly” or too protective for the women you mentor think about these patterns and how you can make the relationship more equal and collegial. Excellent mentoring relationships are mutual and present opportunities for male mentors to learn from their female mentees—asking for feedback from the mentee is another method for the mentor to learn about himself.

• Mentor women and men often: When men are deliberate, transparent, and persistent about mentoring junior colleagues of both genders, they become more comfortable in cross-sex mentorships and gossip dies down. Frequent exposure to a different cultural group (women) is the only antidote to helping men feel more comfortable and accomplished with cross-sex mentorships. Approaching these interactions with a learning orientation and humility, while being careful about assumptions often helps break through barriers. And when a guy often mentors women at work, seeing him with a junior woman won’t stir gossip the way it might if cross-sex mentorship is not part of his typical leadership behavior.

• Call out and reinforce men who mentor women well: Organizations too seldom reward and deliberately give prolific mentors reinforcing shout-outs at work. Known as “star-makers,” some people are particularly skilled at developing junior talent. When a man takes it upon himself to actively, ethically, and effectively promote and champion the junior women around him, be sure he hears about just how much this appreciated at public events and in his annual review. CEOs and senior male leaders who lead by example often find that their organizations follow their lead.

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