Sector News

Challenging our gendered idea of mentorship

January 7, 2020
Diversity & Inclusion

There’s so much buzz about male allies. Conversations, studies, and presentations about mentors and sponsors are almost always about how leaders who are men can help women.

These narratives are important and necessary, of course. But they also offer a narrow definition of leadership, portraying men as the heroes in a story where women need help. While I, too, regularly share examples of male allies and help equip men to be advocates for women, I’m starting to tire of this one-sided portrayal.

The reality is that just as women benefit from male mentors, sponsors, and allies, men also gain from the mentorship, leadership, and sponsorship of women. But stories about women leaders are scarce, and they often narrowly focus on how women help each other. Even more rare are examples of the positive impact women leaders have on the careers and business of men. This imbalance reinforces negative bias about the ability of women to lead and contributes to the scarcity of women at the top.

In fact, examples of women leaders mentoring and sponsoring men, and investing in and advancing the businesses of men, do exist. Home Depot’s recently retired CFO, Carol B. Tomé, groomed her successor, Richard McPhail. Ramon Laguarta succeeded Indra Nooyi at PepsiCo, citing her as his mentor. In the food world, it is common to find a woman running the business of a big-name male chef. Marguerite Zabar Mariscal is the CEO of chef David Chang’s Momofuku Group, with annual revenues of $100 million. Kimberly Grant is the C.E.O. of José Andrés’ ThinkFoodGroup, which operates restaurants in eight cities. Lois Freedman has been the president of Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s restaurant group for more than three decades.

For businesses, economies, and people to get the demonstrated dividend that comes from gender-balanced leadership teams, we have to eliminate inaccurate, persistent perceptions about women as leaders. One way to do that is to observe and tell stories about how women leaders benefit men. As Dr. Alice Eagly, a psychology professor who studies stereotypes, said: “Stereotypes change when people get new observations. They form because of what people experience in daily life, what people see.”

In this spirit, I wanted to share a few of the experiences relayed to me by men and women who I have worked with, coached, and am connected to around the country. They vary in age, race, and career stage and work in fields as far ranging as venture capital, financial services, architecture, diplomacy and the nonprofit sector. (First names only have been used upon request.) Their stories illustrate how all around us and on a daily basis, women leaders invest in and help to advance men in their careers and businesses.

Take Gloria Pace King, who helped Troy Robinson navigate the workplace as a black leader. “Gloria was demanding and forceful — two things a woman was not supposed to be, especially as a black woman in the South,” recounted Troy, who worked for Gloria for 13 years. “More often than not, she was the only woman and only black person in a room of white men who were all too eager to look for cracks in her armor. She would say: ‘I am taking this seat because I deserve it. If you deserve a seat at the table, demand that seat, but be prepared.’ Hers was a bold courage and I carry her tenacity with me every day.”

Or Beth, a market president for a regional bank who found a way to leverage a commercial lending officer’s strengths in a way her male counterparts had not. “He was considered a low performer and was essentially written off by male leaders at the bank and left alone to figure out how to meet his goals,” Beth recounted. She identified where his talents and expertise did lie, and where his strengths complimented hers. She restructured his role so that he could make a positive contribution at the bank. She explained: “We now work in concert and closely together. Our collaboration and the combination of both our skills have led to us bring in new clients and provide better service to our current clients. He, the bank, and I have benefited.”

John Whitaker, an architect and a master’s candidate at the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis, explained that unlike his previous male bosses and mentors, Jacqueline, his thesis advisor, didn’t focus on competition or obtaining more knowledge than your colleagues. “I’d never had a female boss or mentor until last year. Unlike what I had been used to under male bosses/mentors, Jacqueline showed me that when you learn together and share your knowledge with others, you succeed together.”

He also described how Jacqueline taught him about managing personal and professional demands. “She took people as a whole package and worked together with all their complexity, openly accepting both the personal and professional parts of them,” he told me. “I have a two-year-old son and Jacqueline would encourage me to bring my son to the studio when I needed to because my wife travels internationally for work.”

Darcy Howe, a founding member and investor in the Women’s Capital Connection, has been investing in women-led businesses for more than 10 years. But as a venture capitalist, and founder and managing director of KCRise Fund, she has also invested in 23 businesses run by men. What she’s learned about how they view her has been illuminating. “What male entrepreneurs tell me I do differently is that while I am as direct as their male VCs, I voice my concerns with empathy for how hard things are for them,” she said. “I connect them to the other funders, corporations, expertise, coaches, and resources they need to be successful. The approach I take encourages and builds them up so they can persevere and grow their business.”

Finally, Ewan MacDougall, a former Marine who became a diplomat, described his experience working for former U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch in glowing terms. “I’m uncertain about ascribing differences in my managers’ styles to gender,” he said, “but I do know this: Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch is the most impressive leader and diplomat I’ve ever worked with. Her mind works at a pace few can keep up with, yet she always went out of her way to build an inclusive team. I strive to emulate her excellence as a highly prepared, inclusive leader who taps into the full potential of each member of the team and cares about each individual as well as the mission as a whole. I know these traits will serve me well throughout my career.”

These stories and many more can help change the narrative of only women needing the support of men to succeed. Everyone needs strong mentors, sponsors, and leaders in their careers. Yes, we need men to sponsor and help advance women, and we need women to do the same for one another. But it’s time we tell more stories of women leaders developing, supporting, and advancing men in unexpected and powerful ways, too.

By Rania H. Anderson

Source: Harvard Business Review

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