Why Men Should Mentor Women

Professor David Smith says inclusion can’t wait for coronavirus. It needs to remain a priority for businesses.

David Smith first became aware of gender inequality while attending the United States Naval Academy in the early 1980s. Back then, women accounted for fewer than 10 percent of the student body and were “treated like second class citizens,” says Smith, a sociology professor at the United States Naval War College, who has written extensively on the importance of men mentoring women.

Even after three decades, gender equality in mentorship is more important than ever: The US July unemployment rate for women is about one percent higher than men and is 1.2 times higher than the highest women faced during the Great Recession. Women are more likely to have jobs in retail, hospitality, healthcare, and education fields, some of which have suffered massive jobs cuts during the pandemic, and they still bear the brunt of household and childcare responsibilities that take away time from professional duties.

For Smith, studying gender inequality and mentoring became an interest after meeting his wife, a fellow midshipman and now a retired naval officer. Her experiences were vastly different from his: She had to constantly balance showing her competence while not appearing abrasive. “When it comes to a management or leadership style, guys have a lot of flexibility,” Smith says. “Women don’t. They often get feedback that if they’re too assertive, then they’re abrasive. Or pick your favorite ‘B’ word – bossy.”

Men hold the vast majority of senior positions. They need to help mentor the many talented junior women, who might otherwise not get the advocacy and support needed for their advancement.

His research has focused on gender, work, and family issues, including bias in performance evaluations, retention of women, and dual-career families. His next book – “Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace” – should be available in October. Smith recently spoke with Ana Kreacic, a partner at Oliver Wyman and chief operating officer of the Oliver Wyman Forum, about the importance of diversity and mentors, particularly during a pandemic that has disproportionately impacted women and communities of color.

Hiring has paused in many industries, raising concerns about job and income security, but also about whether we will lose the gains we’ve made on inclusion and diversity. What worries you?

Women, including women of color, have suffered greater job losses and coronavirus-related health issues. It’s a double whammy for them already. A lot of companies are putting diversity and inclusion resources on hold, and that concerns me. That is like saying I’m not going to invest in my 401k plan during the pandemic. That will have an impact down the road. 

I get it that leaders have to balance the bottom line, but this is a time when they have to realign resources and get creative.

What would you say to those who think we’ve solved the gender divide in why there is so much inequality?

A lot of it stems from traditional beliefs about work and family and about what’s valued and what’s not. Women are still seen as primary caregivers and nurturers, and men as the professionals. If you subscribe to that, then that automatically sets up inequality.

We need to fix things at home. That’s where we socialize and role model for our children the norms and values we expect. Men need to be equal partners at home with their spouses. They have to do their fair share of the household chores, childcare, and homeschooling.

Why should men be involved with mentoring women?

Dr. Mady W. Segal, my first female mentor, was my dissertation advisor. One thing in particular I credit her with is challenging me in a way that was almost off-putting. I still remember our conversations about military women and families. She made me realize military men – men like me – were still part of the problem.

It was really eye-opening for me: If I have a choice, I want men in the room. Women get it, they’re living with it, but men are afraid to speak up or don’t know all of the right things to do.

We need to change the messaging around diversity and inclusion. Every time we call it a women’s initiative, the guys hear that and check out. They think “that’s not my problem, that’s not my issue,” and don’t get involved. These are leadership issues, and both men and women need to be involved.

What advice do you have for someone who is trying to find a mentor during the coronavirus pandemic?

The current work-from-home situation can feel challenging to engage someone more senior in a mentoring relationship, so you need to be purposeful. Start with a small but specific ask. Reach out to a potential mentor directly or through a colleague introduction and let them know how much you admire a specific skill, expertise, or perspective provides a context. Then, ask if you can schedule some time on their calendar to “meet” for a virtual coffee so that learning more about what you’re interested in should be an easy “yes.”

Starting with a “Will you be my mentor?” is a huge ask, as it’s a significant time and resource commitment. But by starting small, they get to know you and you can develop a working relationship over time that can naturally grow into a mentorship. And be ready with what you can offer in terms of collaboration on a project that would be useful to a potential mentor. The best mentoring relationships are reciprocal.

You’ve talked a lot about the importance of getting men to mentor women. How do we get them to do that?

Two specific actions that are proven to work are formal mentoring programs and accountability. Formal mentoring programs help by creating a transparent reason for men to be in a mentoring relationship with a woman. This helps overcome any potential perception issues they might be concerned about. If men are still uncomfortable mentoring an individual woman in a formal program, have him mentor in a group or cohort with multiple women and men.

When there isn’t a formal program, make mentoring an accountability. Company leadership can add mentoring as part of the job description for their managers and add it as something they are evaluated on. Senior leadership should allot managers time for mentorship training – and even role model inclusive mentoring for their managers themselves.

How often does the CEO talk about who they are mentoring or a mentoring accomplishment? How often are excellent mentors recognized by the company? If you want to learn what’s valued in an organization, listen to what the senior leaders talk about and emphasize it.

What other advice do you have for women and mentors?

I think we have to broaden our perspective on who can be mentors. Peer mentoring can be some of the best mentoring.

Start with people who are already well-known for being great mentors or star-makers in your company. For potential male mentors in particular, look for men who have a more egalitarian approach to work relationships or demonstrate that they are a public ally for women. As one woman told us, there’s a women’s “whisper” network that identifies who’s an ally and who’s not.

Companies are recognizing that they need to do a much better job at hiring and retaining Black employees. Can mentoring help? If so, how?

A strong mentoring program or culture can be helpful for both hiring and retaining any under-represented group. Research shows that under-represented groups are less likely to receive mentoring unless there is a formal mentoring program or a strong mentoring culture. Mentoring for Black employees especially makes an impact through affirmation, advocacy, and engagement. It’s not unusual for under-represented people to contend with imposter syndrome in addition to the other real frictions they can experience at work. An excellent mentor will provide copious doses of affirmation that they belong, are valued, and that there’s a path to reach their career dream.

Fostering a reputation for inclusive workplace and mentoring practices is critical for companies to recruit diverse talent. Recent research shows that the class of 2020 is looking for organizations that can walk the talk when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Katie Sessa, a consultant at Oliver Wyman and co-chair of Men4Change in New York, also contributed to this interview. Men4Change is an Oliver Wyman initative that actively engages men and all allies to encourage awareness, dialogue, and action to decrease inequality in our firm and our society.