by Jennifer Brown —
David Smith, Associate Professor of Sociology at the United States Naval Academy and author of “Athena Rising“ discusses the importance of mentorship for job growth and how men can become effective mentors to women. David discusses some of the most common objections and obstacles that arise when it comes to men mentoring women and how to overcome them. He also shares the benefits that men report that they receive from mentoring women, and why he is hopeful about the future of gender equality in the workplace.
In this episode you’ll discover:
- Why David started working on engaging men on gender equality in the workplace (1:30)
- How men benefit from mentoring women (3:30)
- David’s toughest audiences and how he deals with objections about his work (13:25)
- Why employing women is not enough to achieve gender quality and key questions for leaders (15:47)
- How to overcome negative perceptions about cross gender mentoring (20:45)
- Key qualities of effective male mentors (30:00)
- A case study of the positive impact of mentoring (33:10)
- The skill sets that women need to lead men in organizations (36:45)
- A frustration that David sees in his work and why he is hopeful about the future (40:10)
- An important leadership moment for men (42:50)
- How organizations can create a culture of trust (45:55)
- How men can engage each other around gender equality (47:15)
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you for joining me on The Will to Change, this is Jennifer Brown.
Our guest today is David Smith. David 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, having served four years as the chair. A former Navy pilot, Dr. Smith led diverse organizations of women and men, culminating in command of a squadron in combat and flew more than 3,000 hours over 19 years including combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is the co-author of the recently released book, Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women.
David, I’m so thrilled to have you here. I love your book, Athena Rising, and I’m going to ask you a whole lot of questions about you and your allyship for gender equality. Welcome.
DAVID SMITH: Thanks, Jennifer. Thanks for having me today.
JENNIFER BROWN: I have to ask. The subtitle of the podcast is True Stories of Diversity and Inclusion. I bought your book without even knowing who you were, just based on the fact that there were two men writing a book about supporting women and how they will be transformed in the process.
I wanted to start by understanding what prompted you to write a book about men mentoring women.
DAVID SMITH: My co-author, Brad Johnson, who’s a colleague of mine at the Naval Academy, about three years ago we were talking about some of the challenges in the workplace. Lots of conversation going on. This is when Lean In was coming out with Sheryl Sandberg, and lots of conversation about engaging men in particular.
It didn’t seem like there was any of that out there. There was lots of talk about engaging men, but nobody was talking to the men about it.
In particular, I teach a social psychology course on gender and leadership. It’s pretty clear that in the workplace, professional development of both men and women takes a good understanding of mentoring to do it well, excellent, and be intentional about how you go about doing that.
When you talk to men about this, about how they do their mentoring, they don’t even necessarily recognize or realize how they mentor other men. They don’t even recognize that they are doing the mentoring in many cases, they don’t see it that way. To ask them, “Why aren’t you mentoring women?” is not even a question that would cross their mind.
As Brad and I thought about it, Brad’s a nationally recognized expert on the topic of mentoring, and most of my research deals with gender and work with families.
I said, “Maybe this is our time to write this and to engage men.” And we thought that, in particular, for two men who have military backgrounds, me as a current Naval officer and Brad as a former at an institution like the Naval Academy, a very masculine organization, where better than that to write a book like this? Men might listen to us and engage in a conversation about why they need to start thinking about how they are or are not mentoring both sexes, everybody in the talent pool. That’s where we got started, and it’s been a great journey ever since.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thanks for that. How do you see the problem? Maybe I’ll change that word, rather, the “opportunity.” How do you see the opportunity for men, and that feminism in the workplace as demonstrated by both men and women is actually good for leaders and for workplaces in all respects? How do you redefine and make it less of an “us and them” conversation, and really include men in what’s in it for them in terms of doing this? That’s changing the conversation, and I want to know more about it.
DAVID SMITH: Right. I think you hit on a very important topic. Understanding the reasons why, and we make this case at the beginning of the book because we think it is so foundational to starting this conversation with men in all sorts of industries out there.
Certainly, it tends to be very obvious. Why should men mentor women? Well, it’s good for women. It’s good for them. And taking these talented, young, junior women coming up through the ranks who may have a hard in traditionally male professions to find a male mentor. We all know the benefits of mentoring, it works the same for men and women, even though it’s harder for women to sometimes define mentors.
It’s good for the bottom line of the organization. There’s lots of great research going on today out there to support that. More and more CEOs and people in the executive offices out there today understand why they need to promote a more diverse and inclusive workplace.
The part that you touch on here is that we don’t often talk to men about why it’s good for them. And this is not just for male mentors, it’s good for female mentors, too. For the men, we talk to them about the fact that the satisfaction of seeing one of your junior, talented people grow up, develop, and go through the ranks and move on to senior levels due to your hard work and mentoring.
One of the other things that came out in our conversations with many senior male mentors as we were writing the book was that a lot of them just never realized how much they were getting out of the mentoring relationship with their junior female that they were mentoring.
Many of the men would come back and tell us that they almost felt guilty, to a large extent, because they felt like they were getting more out of the relationship than the women were as mentees.
It was an “ah-hah” moment as we began to talk to them about it and have them reflect on those mentoring relationships. They’re learning a lot about themselves, and most of them talked about that in terms of interpersonal skills. These are understanding how they relate to other people, in particular another gender, and thinking about their emotional intelligence. Many of them talked about this ability to see other perspectives and to understand and to really work on listening to their mentees so that they could begin to understand their unique perspectives and understand their unique experiences in many ways.
Interpersonal skills were one of the areas in particular that many of the men began to realize that they were really expanding and developing themselves as a person and as a leader.
They also became very aware that they were developing a much more robust and diverse network across their organization. By including women now, they were bringing in other people who were able to show them other aspects of the organization that they didn’t necessarily understand.
In some cases, it’s also generational in the sense that you have a younger generation, you understand what’s going on with their generation and what they’re experiencing. As we get more senior in our organizations, to become a little bit more detached from and maybe not understand those perspectives as much.
Certainly, I think many of the male mentors understood the fact that they were having more and more people come to them, seeking them out as a mentor. They become those “rain makers” in the organization and certainly become more valued and valuable to the organization.
In our conversations with many of these men, they began to see that it was just as important, if not more important in some cases, for many of them to be doing the mentoring.
JENNIFER BROWN: What you’re describing almost is a “reverse mentoring” scenario. That’s something I’m starting to see pop up. It suits the millennials and their confidence, verve for life, and their enthusiasm about their values. I, for one, am glad that they’re coming into the workplace saying, “I want to be seen and heard, and I want to be teaching what I know. I don’t want to wait many years until I have a big title to do that.” It suits them as well to be connected to senior leaders from a visibility standpoint, but also to have it be more reciprocal.
That’s a shift that’s happening also as we see the flattening of organizations. We are realizing that it’s very difficult to get work done in a fast-paced world when we have these elaborate organizational structures that are really vertical in nature.
Coming from the military, I’m sure you know that hierarchy incredibly well, and yet you also know the value of effective teams and how trust is so important. You’re digging into that in a very interesting way.
I don’t know if my audience is noticing this, but there are what we’re calling “manbassador” tracks going on at a lot of different conferences. Conferences for women are starting to be intentional about gathering the community of men. Are these the early adopters? Do you think we’ll see a lot more of that happening with men showing up if we build a space for that? I know we need to build a space for that.
I saw so many men, for example, at the Women’s March. I think we’re in the midst of a real change of men getting involved in the conversation. Are you seeing that same thing? How would you define the “manbassador” of today?
DAVID SMITH: That’s absolutely right. I had an opportunity to speak and engage with many men in these “manbassador”-type tracks that we’re seeing out there today. It’s interesting to see who these attract or who is self-selecting into these particular conferences and groups.
You see people in different places. Certainly, the early adopters are there. And they’re a great audience to talk with and work with on this topic because they’re engaging and looking to expand and learn more ways that they can challenge themselves in their workplace and how to engage with other men. They truly are the multipliers in the workplace because they’re the ones who are out there spreading it in their particular organization with other men. They’re learning how to engage in these conversations that can be a little tricky sometimes, and maybe bring out defense mechanisms with men in some ways. They’re trying to break down those walls and find the conversations and arguments that are best to do this.
I think there are also some other groups of men who are at these tracks. Certainly, there are probably some people there who were told to be there, maybe “volun-told” to go or something. And they’re an interesting audience. They tend to be the ones that we would, you know, we want to work with all of them, but this particular group is one that the message is directly there for them, and to begin to have them see the value in what engaging and mentoring women in a particular way does for you and your organization, and why it’s the right thing to do. Sometimes that social justice argument isn’t always the most compelling for them, and you don’t necessarily have to start there, but I think eventually we get them to the point where they see that it’s the right thing to do.
It’s really interesting to see how many of these conferences, forums, and symposia out there today are going to this. To me, it’s needed. If we’re going to continue to move and advance towards gender equality in the workplace, it can’t be just women talking to women. Men have to be engaged in the conversation. We have to be working with each other, and we have to learn from each other. The more men we can bring in, the more we can learn from each other, the faster we can get to that point.
JENNIFER BROWN: We really need it, that’s for sure. You told me a story about your toughest audiences. Who do you like to speak to? Where do you feel you’re most in service? We talked about some of your military audiences, particularly, and some of the pushback you get occasionally. It reminded me of the unconscious bias that I hear from male leaders, and leaders of all genders of a certain generation. This tends to sound like, “Oh, we already do this well, I’m well intended, I’m a progressive person, of course I believe in gender equality. How dare you say that I don’t?” But there’s an assumption that it’s somehow happening in 2017 in organizations. All you need to do is look at an org chart at most companies to know that it’s absolutely not just happening. In fact, the numbers haven’t moved at all for a long time.
That is such a revelation especially for men because the intent is there. You told me a funny story about particular audience members. Can you describe what it’s like to be up there on that stage as a man talking to other men in the military about this? What are the dynamics around those “ah-hah” moments?
DAVID SMITH: Right. In particular, sometimes you have these people in the audience, these men who, because they have women in their organization, and because they think that because they have women working for them, that therefore they’re already doing these things. They’re already an inclusive workplace, it’s just a matter of when more women are going to self-select into their organization, into their unit.
It’s not until you begin to challenge them a little bit in that thought process. Let’s not talk so much about the women that are coming in, but how about the women who are there and the women who have left? Where are they today? Are they continuing to move on? How many of them have you helped to attain these higher levels of leadership, whether in your organization or another organization? It doesn’t have to always be in your organization. Many times, in mentoring lots of people, they’ll do lateral moves that you’ve even helped them to do.
Often, we’ll ask them about that, about looking at their retention of talented women, their promotion of talented women. Where are they? What are they doing? And that begins to open their eyes a little bit as they begin to think about it.
Others have talked about the fact that we will find, especially with some of the older generations of men, that because they find they have that one woman or maybe a couple women who work for them in their organization, that it gives them that moral license to not have to worry about doing more, right? Doing the mentoring, doing the developing, doing the hard work that we know we need to do with everyone, all of our talented people. It doesn’t just happen on its own.
It takes a lot of effort, takes a lot of time to do this. So it’s interesting to see sometimes with the older generation taking that license to say, “Well, because I have these women here, clearly, I do it.” Well, that may not necessarily be the case out there for you. It’s interesting to see how they come at that.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. We have to open up a lot of eyes and hearts with this work. It reminds me, we talked a little bit about how it takes two, it’s a two-way street. We talked about sometimes women being the willing participants in the relationship. Sometimes that can be somewhat fraught for the woman on that side of the equation, or confusing, and something that’s a little bit uncomfortable. I actually think women may struggle knowing how to enlist a mentor, to really leverage that relationship.
You and I talked about Sheryl Sandberg’s famous story with Larry Summers, and you shared with me how he’s mentoring her, and he’s shouting her name from the rooftops, making sure that everybody knows who she is, and doing all the right things, and Sheryl being really uncomfortable about being highlighted in that way.
It really resonated with me because there is a level that women need to step forward and overcome some of our own hesitations and internalized biases around what does female leadership look like? How do female leaders behave? And we’re entering this new world.
Then there is other pushback which says to the men, “Hey, where have you been? We’ve been struggling on our own for so long here with no help.” I don’t know if there’s some trust that needs to be rebuilt, but it does really take two to tango. I noticed that it’s uncomfortable, potentially, on both sides of the equation. Do you have any thoughts or advice for women to step into the opportunity that this represents?
DAVID SMITH: Certainly. The Sheryl Sandberg story when she was working for Larry Summers early in her career was an interesting one because it was a little bit of her discomfort with, certainly some women in our society find that self-promotion as a woman can lead to all sorts of backlash and negative attributions and things. I think it was almost feeling like he’s doing this in a way that it’s going to come back on me if he continues to do that. He was actually being a classically great mentor, and even more in terms of sponsoring, right? Telling people how good she is, why they need to listen to him, and sharing his own capital. That is so important and critical for good mentors and good sponsors. We know we do it for men, we have to do it for women, too, to share that capital. That’s part of the relationship.
As far as engaging men, there are several challenges there with that. One that everybody brings up, and it’s worth talking about, is the perception piece. This is not the internal male perception of the female mentee, but more the outside perception of colleagues, coworkers, giving them something to talk about. Suddenly, there’s this more senior man who is spending a lot of time in a mentoring relationship with this junior woman. That can lead to some misperceptions and people talking and rumoring about that. That’s a challenge that has to be talked about in the mentoring relationship in particular.
We spend a lot of time talking both to the women and the men about this particular issue because it’s not trivial. It can lead to more harm than good, and first and foremost in any mentoring relationship should be our fiduciary responsibility to our mentee and that we do no harm there.
Thinking about why might there be perceptions about this being something more than a mentoring relationship is one of the things we talk to the men about. First ask yourself, “Why do people think that?”
Certainly, best practices out there, lots of successful male mentors and people who have risen up through the ranks to CEO have talked about how transparency and consistency tend to be their hallmarks of what makes a good senior male mentor for a junior woman. And being transparent in the sense that this is my mentee, when we are working together on developing and doing this mentoring relationship, we do it in places where people can see us in the public eye. If that’s in your office, then does that mean the door is open? Well, if that’s appropriate and that’s what you do with your male mentees, then certainly. Can you do it in a break room? Can you do it in a coffee shop? Where does that happen?
One CEO even told us a story that he found it really challenging because he did a lot of his mentoring with the men in the evenings right after work, and they might go out and get a bite to eat somewhere or grab a beer. And for two guys doing that, that’s mentoring, but the minute he takes a female mentee out there, well, that could be a date. And so that’s a challenge. His only way to be consistent and transparent was to come up with his breakfast and lunch policy. If it’s going to be around a meal, it’s only around breakfast and lunch.
Being transparent and consistent is something that we have to talk about when we’re doing this. But there are lots of other reasons why the men are more hesitant about engaging young women. And women need to understand this as well, that men, from a relationship perspective, they all have mothers, many of them have sisters, many of them have daughters. From that perspective, they understand what a cross-gender relationship looks like. They understand how it’s supposed to happen.
And then even beyond that, if they have a wife, they certainly understand what that looks like, or a significant other, they understand what that looks like. But when it comes to having a professional, cross-gender, intimate mentoring relationship, many of the men just don’t have a model for that. They don’t have the script.
We talk about how, as men, we have what we call the “man scripts.” For example, the father-daughter relationship is one that many men will fall back on because they have anxiety about having this professional cross-gender relationship with a woman and they don’t really know how to act or behave in that relationship. So they fall back on what they do know.
Certainly, there’s nothing negative or wrong with a father-daughter relationship, but it’s not necessarily a good mentoring relationship. The hierarchical power dynamic that’s going on there can turn into almost a benevolent, sexist kind of an aspect to it. And, certainly, this protectionism that goes on is not healthy for the mentee. She will not get the opportunities and the same kind of challenges to develop and grow that she needs.
We like to talk to the women about understanding some of these scripts and understanding how men might be approaching this and what to be aware of. And then as far as men go, to understand when they’re falling back into those and to understand how these are not necessarily positive ways to engage in a mentoring relationship.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s so tactical and practical. I love it. I’m glad you’re sharing this. I don’t think men understand the particular issues that do impact women in the workplace specifically. Little decisions that can have a big impact around wanting to protect, or assuming that you are actually doing good by suggesting that somebody has a new kid on the way or cannot travel or can’t take that assignment that may involve global relocation, et cetera. A lot of decisions are so well intended, and yet they betray a lack of understanding about the opportunities that women need to move up. Those are running P&Ls, those are global assignments, they are stretch assignments.
I think the “ah-hah” moments are around what time do we schedule meetings? Do we need a 7:00 a.m. check-in every morning for the team huddle? How does that suit not just women, but parents in general?
This is why each one of these issues, you can extrapolate it out to think about how it’s also important for gender intelligence. It’s good for men as well as women. There are so many things about the workplace that aren’t conducive to just balance in general and our ability to achieve our potential and do good work.
What are some other things that men are completely shocked by, where women roll their eyes and say, “Of course this is what happens. Of course this is why I didn’t get that opportunity”? What is some other intelligence that you can share with us?
DAVID SMITH: Well, you brought up one aspect that we’ve heard so many times, so many great stories about. These were some interesting “ah-hah” moments for male mentors as they talked about their experiences mentoring junior women.
We had Robert Lightfoot, who works for NASA. His mentee, who is Janet Petro, or one of his many mentees, I would say, because Robert is very prolific as a mentor. She’s the director of the Kennedy Space Center.
He told us some stories early on where they were making some decisions in a committee about who was going to get this next position, this next step up. There was a particular opportunity here, and this wasn’t with Janet, it was another woman. But she was the right person for the job to be moving up into this position. And it was unanimous across the committee that she was the right person to be moving into the position. When it was being moved forward for her to take that, Robert chimed in and said, “Wait a minute, but she just had a baby. This position requires a lot of travel, and I just don’t think this is right for her right now.”
He said that it was such an “ah-hah” moment when one of his peers, a female peer across the table from him looked at him and said, “You know, I think she knows she just had a baby, and I think she knows what she can handle and what she can’t, so why don’t we let her make the decision.”
JENNIFER BROWN: (Laughter.) Ouch!
DAVID SMITH: And he just thought, “Wow, you are so right.” Another time, he related a story about how he needed this particular woman to do some additional work on a project they were getting ready for. There as a meeting they needed to have, and it was going to be after their normal working hours. He said, “Maybe we’ll reschedule it because she probably doesn’t have time, knowing that she has kids and family obligations to do this right now.” He realized afterwards, thinking about it, that, by the way, her husband also worked for him at NASA. If it had been him, he wouldn’t have thought twice about asking.
You bring up a great point. We have to be cognizant of who’s in the room and who’s not in the room. When we’re having meetings, where we’re having meetings, and when we’re not having them. Again, who’s there, and who’s not there. So many stories over and over were echoed about that.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s so true.
DAVID SMITH: I mentioned earlier that the men felt like they learned so much more from their mentees than maybe their mentees learned. We talk about this in terms of gender humility. You talk about gender intelligence, I think an aspect of that is approaching your mentoring relationship with a little bit of humility. I can learn something here from her, and I have to listen.
We find that some of the best male mentors, and this goes for women as well, in particular, have the ability to close their mouth for a few minutes and just listen. Just listen with the intent of learning something that she has something to share with you that you didn’t know. Put your assumptions aside for just a few minutes and let her tell you how she really feels, what her experiences are, what her situation is, and her goals and career dreams. And then you can really begin to work on developing her and helping in that way.
It takes a few minutes to sit there and be quiet and listen and don’t assume. And we talk to guys a lot about that because we think it’s a lot of fun to think that as we go through this, that men stereotypically talk about how guys like to fix things, we like to problem solve, we even talk about this genetic “big fixit” gene we have in our makeup. Sometimes we just have to turn that “fixit” gene off a little bit. It’s not all about problem solving here. Remember, your mentee sometimes just needs to be listened to and affirmed that what she’s doing is right, what she’s doing is hard or challenging, and yes, you’re getting through it, you’re working through it, but you’re doing well and you belong here. You’re doing this the way it should be done.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, I love that. It reminds me of the story you told about the concept of the “everyday Athena.” That’s what you call these smart, young women. You’ve spent so much time in the classroom teaching sociology and walking people through. You’ve had some “everyday Athenas” come through your classes and really achieve incredible things. Are there any stories you want to share about what happens in the classroom when it comes to learning for young people? And maybe some success stories that you’re particularly proud of.
DAVID SMITH: Certainly. As you said, the idea for using the name “Athena” in the book title, and the chapter you’re talking about, perceiving women as “everyday Athenas,” comes from the women that we work with every day and teach. Brad and I both teach at the Naval Academy. A lot of people think of Athena as the goddess of war, but she’s also the goddess of wisdom and reason. We think that’s appropriate and very fitting for the women whom we work with. And trying to have men think about their perception, in this case their perception of the women whom they work with. If you see them in that light, that they are these talented people capable of overcoming incredible barriers and challenges just like the men that you work with, that gets us a lot further down the road towards, again, having a much more inclusive workspace.
In particular, one of the students that Brad and I had a chance to work with is now a lieutenant in the Marine Corps, Virginia Brodie.
Virginia, when you look at her, you may not see her as an Athena the first time because she’s about five-two, if she’s standing really tall on a good day, and she’s just not one of these physically big folks that you see, especially around a lot of the men who are her peers.
But Virginia was so intelligent and so bright and so committed and dedicated to her life of service in the military that you could not help but be inspired around her. There was never any challenge that was too big that she could not overcome.
Working with her, as she went into the Marine Corps, she had the opportunity, she was one of the first two women to select into the combat arms when the law as changed last year. Virginia went into artillery, and she had some challenges along the way. Certainly, it was great to have the opportunity to be able to work with her long distance, but she had several male mentors working with her along the way as well who helped her get through the training to become an artillery officer. And not just barely get through it, but Virginia graduated from her artillery school class number one out of over 100 men and two women.
Again, not just meeting the bare minimums, not just getting over the bar, but rising and excelling, proving that she can do it just like the guys can.
JENNIFER BROWN: So impressive. I was following all of that story, it was cool. Very inspiring.
David, I have another question. As we were getting to know each other, I asked you, “What are you going to be looking at next as a researcher?” We had a relevant conversation, but a new one for me to think about. As leadership continues to diversify from a gender and ethnicity standpoint, and all the other aspects of diversity, we’re going to have more and more female executives leading largely male organizations.
I hadn’t thought about what that might require from a gender competency perspective. Could you share a little bit more about what intrigued you about that idea? What did you want to research and dig into a little more in terms of the skill set that’s going to be needed? It’s going to be a while until we really achieve parity across workforces. In the meantime, though, there will be those everyday Athenas who get through the pipeline and get to these roles where they’re still, largely, surrounded by men, and leading male organizations. What are they going to need to be successful? I think an expert on men, like you, will be needed when we get to that point.
DAVID SMITH: Certainly. This came out of our work that we started doing with Athena Rising. What Brad and I were hearing over and over again, when we talked to senior women, they had opportunities to mentor junior men. Over and over, we heard the story about how we need to do more work here in this same area and we need to start working with women in understanding how they can be mentoring their junior men, not just mentoring, but it took on a tone about the leadership and management aspects as well, of which mentoring is one part.
You’re right, it became clear to us that as we continue to get closer and closer to equality in the workplace, there is going to be more need to not so much talk about women overcoming challenges to get to the leadership positions, but they’re there now. There will be some other challenges in terms of their leadership of, in many cases, a much more male workforce underneath them.
That’s a conversation we all need to have. We’re moving in that direction now, starting to look at that. That’s going to be the wave of the future, to begin to start coaching and talking with more senior women managers, executives, and CEOs, to talk to them about some of the challenges they might have with men who are in more of a low-status, junior position in their organization.
JENNIFER BROWN: These women are truly pioneers. You described it as the male psyche 101. It struck me. I wasn’t sure if I could describe that. We laugh and say many of us work in predominately male environments, so it’s all around us all the time.
However, being strategic about leading with that understanding is going to have a lot to do with the success of these women long term. It’s one thing to get into the role, but it’s another thing entirely to stay in that role, thrive in that role, and to be respected, especially if you’re the first. You’re breaking through that glass ceiling. There is so much risk that goes along with it. My hat is off to these women, and it’s tremendous to look at what’s been accomplished.
We need gender intelligence on both sides of the equation. I love that you’re going to start to codify that. It could make or break some leaders, especially as they continue to be “the only” in so many environments.
I wanted to ask you, too, David, I know there’s a lot swirling around in our society right now. We don’t have a ton of time to talk about it, but as somebody who’s passionate about gender equality, are you unsettled by what you’re seeing around us right now in the political environment? Is there anything that gives you hope right now? I don’t always want to focus on what we might be concerned about. Some of us might be more than concerned.
What is the silver lining of all of this tumult that our nation seems to be finding ourselves in? How do you see it all playing out? What’s in your crystal ball?
DAVID SMITH: Well, let’s see. If only I had a crystal ball. (Laughter.) That’s a great question, Jennifer.
One of the frustrating aspects of this, I’ll do that first so I can finish on something more positive.
JENNIFER BROWN: Okay.
DAVID SMITH: One of the frustrating aspects I see, and it’s a very natural tendency for us as humans, we’re in fear right now of regressing. We’ve made a lot of great progress over the last decade. Many people are worried that there’s going to be this attack, we’re going to regress, and we’re going to lose and change this policy or that policy, and we’re going to make this walk back and start over again. That’s a natural reaction to a perceived threat to some of this work that we’ve been doing.
It isn’t always necessarily productive. What that tends to do is we’re spending our time and resources on holding the line and defending, then we’re not on offense. We’re not out there doing the good work that we need to be doing, progressing, and continuing to challenge in the workplace.
It’s a little bit frustrating. I see that there may be need in several places that we may have to do that. If so, then yes, we’ll pick up the tools and get out there and do what we need to do.
Rather, I talk to people about staying the course and not just doing the same work that we were doing, but if you’re in a leadership role where you have a voice and a place to speak from, people listen, and people need to be reassured in these times. This is a place for leaders of all kinds of organizations out there to reinforce and assure the people who work for us what’s important, the way things should be, and make sure that we’re communicating that vision of where we’re headed. Yes, politics change, we have new administrations, new policies, and things will change. But for our organizations that we’re in control of, this is where we want to be going, and this is what we’re going to focus on.
In times like these, that’s something that we all need to hear. I think as leaders, that’s where we have to step up and make sure that people do hear that.
JENNIFER BROWN: I couldn’t agree more. Workforces are craving the voice of the leader right now. Often, that voice is a male voice, and it’s often a white male voice if you look at corporate America. It means so much to hear from CEOs, either internal e-mails that I end up seeing, or those released into the public domain, there are a lot of ways to talk about this without being overtly political, without disclosing your own personal practices. It is a leadership moment, really. I’ve been excited about the folks who are using the platform in the moment, telling their story, and talking about why equality and inclusion is critical for their businesses to function and thrive from a talent attraction perspective, and also a marketplace perspective.
It’s considerably less risky for a white man to talk about that than it is for a woman of color to say the same thing, for example. I’m always hoping that we see those with relatively more privilege using their voice and their platform to make strong statements.
Now, we live in volatile times. Sometimes there can be a backlash to CEOs doing that, as we’ve been seeing every single day. There’s a tremendous amount of positive support around that as well.
I have talked to friends who might have been at the, quote/unquote, protest at Google, who all came together on Monday when thousands of employees came out into the commons. They knew their CEO and their leadership team were behind them.
My friends have shared that it’s a proud moment to work at the company. It’s gone such a long way towards retention and their own feelings of excitement about being aligned with such an employer that stands for certain things that they happen to align with. We’re going to see more and more of those kinds of conversations, especially with millennials talking about the importance of values and the priority that they place on the alignment that they need to feel with their employer.
It’s going to be really interesting to see this play out. Similarly, it’s interesting to notice who is not saying anything these days, and imagining what that feels like for people who work in those organizations. Yes, indeed.
David, we are almost out of time. This has been fascinating. I love all the tips you provided. At the end, is there anything that you’d like to share? Maybe the top three things that someone can do, read your book, really put into practice the next day after listening to this. What three things would you advise for men who are listening to this, and also the women who want to see more support from those men?
DAVID SMITH: In Athena Rising, one of the things we talk about is that, for men who don’t necessarily mentor women right now, but they see the need. They understand why it’s important to do this, and they want to engage and get started. We talk about how this can’t be something that’s just this new thing that you do is mentoring women. It has to be real, it has to be authentic. You can’t just be doing it here in this mentoring, this has got to be part of who you are as a person and as a leader. You’ve got to buy in. We talk about being “all in.”
So when you see things going on somewhere else, you have to call them out. You have to be able to do those things and stand up. That’s where women will begin to trust. You talked about trust earlier. Women will begin to trust and say, “Oh, here’s a senior man that I can trust to work with me professionally, develop me, and take me places.” That’s part of it.
We’re trying to change the language out there. Here is one that’s going to be a losing cause, but we still talk about it. We talk about being “that guy.” Of course, being “that guy” is usually we don’t want to be “that guy.” No, we want you to be that guy. And that guy for us is the guy who stands up and doesn’t accept the stereotypical reactions, misperceptions, and biases that go on in the workplace. He holds people accountable and holds himself accountable first in the workplace. We’d like to see that being that guy changes out there.
Finally, I would say engaging each other as men in this conversation. We need to learn to be good counsel, friends, and colleagues to each other so we have somebody to turn to and talk to about these different issues and challenges we’re having. Often, some of the challenges you might have in a mentoring relationship with a woman, it’s not necessarily appropriate that you burden her with some of the issues that you’re having.
We like to talk about having that trusted colleague, that good friend. If you’re considering something that you shouldn’t be doing, whatever it might be, you can go to him and he can give you good counsel and advice and make sure you’re on the right track.
We provide all those and more in Athena Rising. The “how” part of the book, part two, how we should be mentoring women intentionally and in an excellent way. It’s certainly an affirmational, aspirational way to look at that.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s been so great. I’ve enjoyed this so much, David. And you are “that guy” in the best possible way. (Laughter.) May we see many more of you out in the world, we certainly need you more than ever. Thank you for your work, your research, your advocacy, and your voice. I urge everyone to pick up a copy of this book. Read it carefully, highlight a lot of it, share it with other men. And if you’re a woman, share it with your favorite man to see that this is not complicated, and needed more than ever.
Thank you so much for your time.
DAVID SMITH: Thank you, Jennifer. It’s been great.
JENNIFER BROWN: Great. Thanks, David.