When it comes to the status of women in the workplace, there is good news and not-so-good news. The good news first: Women are entering the workplace in increasing numbers – including more than half of management positions across organizations and including traditionally male professions. Moreover, businesses and organizations with more women in the leadership suite are more effective, balanced and competitive. The not-so-good-news? Many organizations continue to struggle when it comes to retaining and promoting the talented women they work so hard to recruit and train.
One of the key factors to dialing down the attrition spigot and retaining talented personnel of either gender is access to high-quality mentoring, particularly in the earliest moments of one’s career. Volumes of research leave little doubt that well-mentored employees are more loyal, satisfied, professionally committed and ultimately successful in their careers. Although critical in the career trajectories of both genders, mentorship proves to be even more crucial for women, particularly in male-dominated professions. In our study of high-ranking women across a wide range of professions, we discovered a striking and recurring theme: the profound importance of influential people who recognized their talent early, praised their accomplishments and then championed their promotion within the organization.
Here is the problem: Although mentorship is particularly vital for women, women report far more difficulty securing mentors than their male counterparts. Sometimes, the problem is linked to a competitive culture and out-and-out disdain for collegiality, including programs focused on developing future leaders. Sure, some organizations offer a few prospective female mentors in the upper echelons of management and leadership. But far more often, the real problem underlying lower rates of mentoring for women has to do with men. For a variety of reasons, senior men are simply missing in action when it comes to initiating and maintaining strong developmental relationships with junior women. For myriad reasons, some men are just plain reluctant to mentor women at work.
There are several reasons men don’t step in to pull up and push forward promising junior women. First, some men cling to the outdated myth that only women can mentor other women. Ultimately a copout, such thinking paints women as an alien species – far too mysterious or complex for a man to decipher and engage in a helping relationship.
Second, some men are anxious about engaging in close relationships with women. These men can experience an anxiety-provoking approach-avoidance quandary with women at work. On one hand, they want to be helpful and enjoy closeness in relationships with female colleagues. On the other hand, they react with anxiety and then avoidance if any feelings of attraction enter the equation. For these men, a caring and companionate, but nonsexual, relationship with a woman may be a novelty.
A third obstacle to male-female mentorships is the – often unconscious – deployment of old scripts for interacting with women. Most often, men call up scripts for familiar roles such as father/daughter, son/mother, or knight/damsel-in-distress. Although familiar and comfortable, these roles can obviously undermine a healthy adult mentorship at work, often disempowering women and ultimately undermining their sense of autonomy and competence. Similarly, some men harbor implicit gender stereotypes that paint women as nice, caring and nurturing, but simply not cut out for the demands of leadership.
Finally, there are more than a few men who become anxious about perceptions in the workplace. For these men, the specter of gossip and sideways glances when they endeavor to help a junior woman at work is just not worth the risk.
What’s the solution? Organizations of all stripes have to send men a different set of messages – including performance expectations – about mentoring both men and women well and often. In a phrase, we have to give men the green light to mentor talented women around them.
How can this happen? First, senior men need to mentor women transparently and frequently. Second, their performance as an inclusive mentor and talent developer must be included in routine performance evaluations. Third, men need preparation (training) to soar in the mentor role. Like anything else, competence in the mentor role is iterative and evolving. Men love tools, so give them a mentorship tool-box that includes an opportunity to understand the experiences of women at work. Finally, loudly and publically reinforce men who mentor women well.
W. Brad Johnson, Ph.D., and David Smith, Ph.D., are professors at the U.S. Naval Academy and authors of “Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women” (2016).