By Melissa Richardson
Like many women (and men), I believe that ‘the system’ itself needs to change before the female half of our population will be appropriately represented in the echelons of power. (By the system, I mean the ingrained habits, behaviours and rewards in place in most work environments – they are the invisible ‘rules’ that have been made mostly by men because men have been in positions of power.)
Even as an advocate for the power of mentoring, I do not believe that mentoring women is magically going to fix ‘the system’. However, if men in positions of power mentor women, and do so in an appropriate and empowering fashion, then more women may rise to the top and feel confident in positions of power.
The more women comfortably inhabit the top ranks, the more likely the system will change. In addition, men who mentor women often experience a change in their understanding of what it is like to be a woman in their business or profession, and this in turn can influence how the rules continue to be made.
The key words there are “appropriate and empowering”. We do not want to mentor women to behave just like men.
The goal instead must be to enable them to deal with power confidently, while still remaining women.
I recently finished reading Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women. The authors are two men with military and academic careers, who have personally witnessed some of the most male-dominated workplaces.
Although women were interviewed as part of the research for the book, it ultimately brings a very male perspective to the art of mentoring women.
Some of the 46 dos and don’ts listed in the book really resonated with me as important in truly empowering women through mentoring. So if you are a man who is mentoring a woman and you don’t have time to read the whole book, here are my top eight from the list.
The first three relate to confronting feelings about and behaviour toward women that you may not even be aware are happening.
Know Thyself: Confront your Gender Biases
I agree with the authors on the importance of recognising those unconscious assumptions we make about each other every day. Attitudes and expectations about women are so deep-seated that you may not even be conscious of them. Work to recognise your own beliefs before the relationship begins. (The book has a few good exercises you can try.)
Let her cry if she needs to cry
It is so important that tears are not seen as a sign of weakness or incompetence. Women do tend to cry more than men, but as the authors put it, “Tears are not inconsistent with excellent work, including first-rate leadership.”
Make Sure She Gets Included
The book very well describes the phenomenon of women being excluded, while men are completely impervious to their isolation. As a man mentoring a woman one of the most valuable contributions you can make to her career is simply ensuring that she is included in key meetings, has access to key information and does not allow herself to be taken for granted.
The next points relate to “male” behaviour that needs to be kept in check when mentoring women.
Be honest, direct and unconditionally accepting
Men are socially conditioned to believe it is ungentlemanly to hurt a woman or make her cry. While noble, this attitude can be limiting to a female mentee. In order to facilitate growth, a mentor must not pull punches with a mentee, regardless of gender.
Help her construct a rich constellation of career helpers
As the authors so beautifully put it, “for goodness sake, don’t do the guru thing”. Men are encouraged to avoid protective and possessive behaviour with their female mentees. Instead open doors to your networks and allow her to collect a range of career helpers.
These next two points are particularly relevant when mentoring a woman in a very male-dominated environment.
Don’t promote her before she’s ready
This advice seems counter-intuitive, but touches on a very real trap for many women. In organisations with a dearth of women at the top, there can be pressure to push a mentee up the chain as quickly as possible. The authors correctly identify this as “benign sabotage”. Push too hard or too fast and you will set your mentee up for a fall.
Affirm that she belongs (over and over)
I wish it were otherwise, but the authors are correct in identifying that woman can suffer imposter syndrome in a male-centric environment. Sometimes a woman’s biggest barrier to success is her own self-doubt. Male mentors need to understand this phenomenon, be sensitive to the signs and look for every opportunity to confirm that she belongs at the top.
This final point is my personal favourite.
No cloning allowed!
This advice is relevant in almost any mentoring relationship. After all, we mentor to enable mentees to grow and become empowered, not to create a bunch of Mini-Mes.
It is particularly important that men not try to mould their female mentees in their own image. What is needed, both for women as individuals and for the goal of a gender-balanced workplace, is for women to develop as authentic leaders – not as male mimics.