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EssayHow Male Mentors Can Develop Women at Work

Organizations that promote gender-inclusive talent management will encourage men to develop their cross-gender mentoring skills.

The workforce includes more women — especially in traditionally male professions — and business leaders are changing workplace environments to be more flexible, collaborative and caring in a calculated effort to attract and retain the best talent, both male and female.

Organizations that don’t adapt to this battle for talent risk marginalizing or excluding 50 percent of those at the top of the curve for IQ, EQ and creativity. Creating an environment where women feel welcomed, integrated and promoted into leadership positions will ensure an organization’s long-term success.

The media continues to highlight companies and industries efforts to address pay equity, paid parental leave and promotion opportunities. This is encouraging, but let’s address the more critical leadership issue. Mentorship is essential for women’s advancement, but women often encounter more challenges acquiring and developing mentoring relationships.

First, senior women may be hard to find. Then, even when they exist, they are unable to mentor all the junior women in today’s organizations. To make matters worse, men may be reluctant to mentor junior women for a host of reasons.

To address this challenge, organizational leadership should focus on transparency, role modeling, establishing accountability and evaluation criteria, and strategically talking about the value of mentoring both men and women. CEOs who are visible mentoring women, talking about their mentoring relationships and setting expectations for their subordinates may find that cross-gender mentoring becomes part of “who we are and what we do” in their organizations. To start, more men must understand women’s career development challenges and then get busy including them and inoculating them against the challenges they’ll face on their rise up the ladder.

Inclusive mentoring requires more than simply initiating mentoring relationships. Mentors must be aware of key meetings and events that are important for mentees’ professional growth. Visibility, socialization, networking, access to hidden politics and insider knowledge are key to develop talent of any kind. Too often women are excluded — sometimes intentionally — from important meetings and opportunities merely because men don’t think to ask why there are no women in the room. Male mentors may have to demand that their mentee have a seat at the table.

Men often socialize and mentor junior men in settings that are not as accessible for women. These events occur at a venue or a time frame that is inherently challenging for women to attend. For example, after normal business hours social events can be challenging for women — and men — who have caregiver responsibilities. In another example, some female congressional staffers were unable to attend evening events or ride with their principal to meetings alone. Male mentors should be aware of settings where their female mentees face exclusion or unnecessary hurdles to participate.

Access and inclusion get female mentees in the door, but once inside they often face stereotypes and perceptions that limit their ability to reach their full potential, thereby limiting their organizational value. Part of the problem is that men may back off or lower their expectations because their mentee is a woman. The concept of inoculation is useful from a developmental perspective to think about how mentors provide opportunities and challenges for their mentees to learn, grow and make mistakes in a safe environment.

Excellent mentors encourage, challenge and confront mentees by setting high expectations. More specifically, knowing those settings, jobs and tasks that a female mentee may avoid — but which may be essential for her ultimate success — is important to ensure her professional development. However, male mentors may fail to provide this guidance if they hold stereotypes that women don’t have capacity for hard work, stressful situations or even leadership.

Some male mentors have been socialized to believe chivalrous attitudes such as “women and children first” or “girls are delicate,” which may lead them to “pull punches” or back off when it is not appropriate. If unsure about whether they are holding back, male mentors need only ask themselves if they would do the same for their male mentees to decide what is best.

Intentional mentoring of promising women will ensure that 100 percent of an organization’s talent pool can contribute to the bottom-line and a workplace environment where everyone feels like a valued employee. Start by teaching men to recognize and then transparently mentor women with the same care and commitment they devote to promising junior men in the organization.

David Smith 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. W. Brad Johnson is a professor of psychology in the Department of Leadership, Ethics, and Law at the United States Naval Academy, and a faculty associate at The Johns Hopkins University. They are co-authors of Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women. Comment below or email editor@CLOmedia.com.

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