It Takes a Few Good Men

By W. Brad Johnson and Captain David Smith, U.S. Navy

Among the most salient factors predicting retention and persistence of women in any profession is the presence of credible and inspiring role models—often senior women. For instance, the presence of female role models in career-relevant areas turns out to be key in inspiring women to enter and persist in traditionally male STEM careers. 5 The absence of credible female role models can weaken women’s self-efficacy, professional identity, and sense of belonging in a career field. 6

Of course, the rub here is the absence of senior women in many military specialties, particularly combat arms. If senior women are not yet present at senior ranks, can guys step in and successfully take up the slack? On this question there is reason to take heart. A recent study at the U.S. Naval Academy revealed that among female midshipmen, gender of the role model was simply not significant, as long as they had someone who took the time to notice and encouraged them. 7 This finding dovetails with evidence across organizations. Women report positive career aspirations when they have access to inspiring and caring role models and mentors, regardless of that person’s gender. 8

Mentorship of Women Is Key to Success

We have interviewed several highly accomplished and high-ranking women, in both the military and other fields. Among the most persistent themes in their stories was the profound importance of influential people who recognized their talent early, praised their accomplishments, and then championed their cause within the organization. In many cases, women who made it to the top in male-dominated organizations identified at least one—often several—key male mentors.

Mentors invest in the career progression and professional/personal development of mentees, often fulfilling essential roles such as challenge, counsel, guidance, sponsorship, support, affirmation, and advocacy. The best mentors are intentional and thoughtful about their role; they invest the time necessary to understand mentees’ unique developmental needs. 9 Four decades of research results leave no doubt that junior members of any profession fortunate enough to have strong mentoring accrue a number of consistent benefits in comparison to those without a mentor. These include greater retention, work satisfaction, professional competence, career motivation, organizational commitment, and ultimately, career success and recognition. 10 These findings extend to military settings where having a mentor tends to bolster one’s career, self-confidence, and willingness to mentor others in turn. 11

The military’s career paths and promotion system, often referred to as “up or out,” make it even more important that junior members of the profession receive excellent mentoring at the earliest stages of their careers. A recent study of senior leadership-school participants (enlisted and officer) at the Naval War College revealed that 91 percent had had at least one very significant mentor—with an average of 3.5 key mentors—in their naval careers. 12 And yes, 95 percent of those mentors were men.

Although mentorship appears even more critical to the success of women—especially in traditionally male-dominated professions—women consistently report a tougher time securing mentors. 13 Too often, men default to the hope that women can mentor women. But in many male-centric domains senior women are nowhere in sight at upper ranks. Even when they are, they live life in a spotlight, getting extra scrutiny at every turn, sometimes creating reluctance to mentor other women. Truth be told, the math does not work. With men occupying the lion’s share of leadership and supervisory positions, junior women will get mentored only if men step up, show up, and take the lead.

Some Men Are Reluctant to Mentor Women

If gender integration is a priority for the Navy and Marine Corps, if mentoring matters for women when it comes to retention, inclusion, and career success, if junior women have few senior women to turn to, and if the evidence shows that men can mentor women effectively, then why are women too often going without the kind of early career mentoring relationships that could persuade them to stay in the service and soar? A big part of the problem is what we call the reluctant male syndrome. Some men are reticent, timid, even phobic about entering into potentially game-changing developmental relationships with women at work. Reluctant men avoid women at work for a variety of reasons, mostly rooted in gender stereotypes or flat-out anxiety. Here are some of the major contributors to the syndrome:

• Persistent Gender Bias: At times, men’s unconsciously socialized perceptions about women leave them in a confusing bind. Often, they have been taught to perceive women as “nice,” compassionate, nurturing, and caring. Although this sounds positive, such perceptions can make it difficult or impossible to simultaneously view women as get-up, take-charge, and move-out leaders. These men cannot quite envision a woman leading in a combat specialty. As a result, they fail to provide women with the mentorship that could help them achieve that end. These men tend to see assertive and action-oriented males as excellent leaders while viewing similarly oriented women as abrasive, cold-hearted, and bossy.

• Discomfort with Nonsexual Intimate Relationships: Although loath to admit it, some men are uncertain about how to have close, connected, collegial relationships with a woman at work without enacting—or at least imagining—a romantic or sexual component. Sometimes these men have little experience with strong, intimate cross-sex friendships. And sometimes they do not know how to express fondness and closeness in a mentorship without trying to consummate the relationship sexually.

Feeling anxiety about their attraction to a mentee or feelings of intimacy, they distance themselves from the very women they are trying to mentor and promote. Of course, getting the cold-shoulder from a previously helpful male mentor can leave a woman feeling unworthy or somehow responsible for the sudden shift in his demeanor.

• “Manscripts” Get in the Way: Sometimes, the “scripts”—or gendered expectations about how men should treat women—get in the way. These are implicit messages about women transmitted to boys by their fathers, peers, and even the broader culture (e.g., girls are nice but weak; women are too thin-skinned to compete in the world of men; a woman needs a man to take care of her). When faced with women at work, men too often resort—sometimes unconsciously—to outdated and decidedly unhelpful relationship scripts such as chivalrous knight or protective father. But of course, trying to “protect” or “rescue” talented women can sabotage their opportunity to compete and prove themselves. Old manscripts can undermine a collegial mentorship and erode a woman’s credibility at work.

• Fear of Public Perceptions and Gossip: In one recent study of senior male executives (vice president and above), 64 percent acknowledged reluctance to be seen meeting alone with junior women. 14 A news article last year about women staffers on Capitol Hill reveals that they often are barred from ever being alone or—God forbid—ever being seen after hours with their male bosses for fear of rumors and bad publicity for the male legislators. 15 The truth is that some men are reluctant to mentor women for fear of social scrutiny. Sometimes, fear of rumors and gossip causes men to keep all junior women at arm’s length, effectively barring them from the sort of access their male peers take for granted and seriously diminishing the kind of frequent interaction that often leads to strong mentorship.

• Fear of Saying or Doing the Wrong Thing: In addition to worrying about what others might think, some men develop genuine anxiety about “slipping” and saying something that might be sexist or even harassing—or at least interpreted that way. Some worry their goodwill or interest will be misinterpreted as “coming on,” and frankly, some men worry they might indeed be doing just that. In response, they opt to ignore women, or at best create distant and sterile relationships with them.

• What Will My Spouse Think? Some men worry that, if their spouses or significant others discover they are working closely with someone of the opposite sex, jealousy and conflict will ensue at home. In our experience, this often has more to do with distrust and poor communication in a relationship. Of course, jealousy can be triggered or worsened when a man lacks transparency about whom he is mentoring or when he attempts to keep these relationships “secret” at work and on the homefront.

So what is the antidote for the reluctant male syndrome? The naval service desperately needs men to step up and deliberately and transparently mentor promising junior women in the same way they mentor men. Every warfare specialty and command needs a few good men to get the memo about the salience of good mentorship to real gender integration in the military. These are men who are all in, guys who understand that confident and effective mentors do not wait around for female rising stars to seek them out for career guidance. Too often, women have been socialized not to compete with men, to wait quietly until called. Naturally, in male-dominated environments the first and few women may feel like imposters; many will be unlikely to seek out potential mentors. The recent Naval War College study revealed that in 82 percent of cases, key mentorships got started because the mentor—usually a man—noticed a talented junior sailor or officer and took the lead in initiating a productive relationship. 16

We are not asking men to mentor women exclusively or to ignore talented junior men. Far from it. Men must simply open their eyes, recognize some of the talented women around them, and then get busy ensuring these women have equal access to the kinds of game-changing mentorships men commonly take for granted. Often, men fail to realize they are being mentored because it happens “organically” in masculine settings such as on the golf course or after working hours at the club.

Mentoring ‘Best Practices’

How can men overcome biases and anxieties about mentoring women? The secret is simple: frequent interaction and exposure to the opposite sex at work. More than 60 years ago, psychologist Gordon Allport discovered that prejudice is most easily and elegantly overcome by mere contact and exposure to a new group. 17 The more different gender groups can interact—particularly in the service of a common mission—the more comfortable and effective they will be in developing (mentoring) relationships with one another.

Positive mentoring starts with a healthy dose of self-awareness. Discovering our own biases and how we were socialized provides a better understanding of the values, beliefs, and social norms that affect our leadership and mentorship interactions with both men and women. For instance, if men are raised to treat women as delicate creatures, this script could inadvertently undermine a female mentee’s development. Similarly, men who believe a woman’s primary responsibility should be to her children and husband may struggle to provide women with effective career mentoring.

In addition to being introspective, excellent mentors seek to understand their mentees’ perspectives and diverse experiences. By the time a woman arrives in the Fleet, she likely has learned that when it comes to competence, she must consistently “prove it again,” whereas men more often are given a pass based on potential and previous accomplishments. Beyond proving their competence, women also may have to scale the “maternal wall”—being perceived as less committed to their careers just because they are married or because they have the potential to give birth. 18 Male mentors who approach their mentees with the intention of learning about their experiences will be more effective in guiding their mentees.

Excellent and deliberate mentorship of women will benefit female mentees and the inclusive organizations in which they work. But what is in it for men? Those who mentor women report a broadened and improved set of work and interpersonal skills. 19 Think of it as diversifying your leadership tool box. Not only does mentoring women expand skills that make men better leaders and mentors, but it also gives them a wider and more diverse network of relationships at work. Successful mentors who find themselves at the higher echelons of the organization also maintain a connection to the deckplates. Information is vital to a leader in today’s military, and a diverse network of talented mentees allows for more open lines of communication and the opportunity to learn. In the end, men who expand their mentoring relationships to include women are better for it. We predict they will be better sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers.

Fully integrating women? All it takes is a few good men.

1. Cedric Herring, “Does Diversity Pay? Race Gender, and the Business Case for Diversity,” American Sociological Review, vol. 74, no. 2 (April 2009), 208-224. Mady Wechsler Segal, CAPT David G. Smith, USN, David R. Segal, and LCDR Amy A. Canuso, USN, “The Role of Leadership and Peer Behaviors in the Performance and Well-Being of Women in Combat: Historical Perspectives, Unit Integration, and Family Issues,” Military Medicine, vol. 181, (January 2016), 28-33.

2. Navy Office of Women’s Policy (2012). Today’s women and tomorrow’s Navy, . .

3. Mady Wechsler Segal et al. “Leadership and Peer Behaviors.”

4. CAPT David G. Smith, USN, and Judith E. Rosenstein, “Gender and the Military Profession: Early Career Influences, Attitudes, and Intentions,” Armed Forces and Society, (January 2016) 1-20.

5. Smith and Rosenstein, “Gender and the Military Profession”; Sapna Cheryan, John Oliver Siy, Marissa Vichayapai, Benjamin Drury, and Saenam Kim, “Do Female and Male Role Models Who Embody STEM Stereotypes Hinder Women’s Anticipated Success in STEM?” Social Psychological and Personality Science, vol. 2, no. 6 (November 2011), 656-664.

6. Laura Smart Richman, Michelle VanDellen, and Wendy Wood, “How Women Cope: Being a Numerical Minority in a Male-Dominated Profession,” Journal of Social Issues, vol. 67, no. 3, (2011) 492-509.

7. Smith and Rosenstein, “Gender and the Military Profession.”

8. W. Brad Johnson and Charles Ridley, The Elements of Mentoring (New York,: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 88-99.

9. Johnson and Ridley. The Elements of Mentoring; W. Brad Johnson and Gene R. Anderson, “How to Make Mentoring Work,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 135, no. 4 (April 2009), 26-32.

10. Lillian Eby, Tammy Allen, Sarah Evans, Thomas Ng, and David DuBois, “Does Mentoring Matter? A Multidisciplinary Meta-Analysis Comparing Mentored and Non-Mentored Individuals,” Journal of Vocational Behavior, vol. 72 (2008) 254-267.

11. W. Brad Johnson and Gene R. Andersen, “Mentoring in the U.S. Navy: Experiences and Attitudes of Senior Navy Personnel,” Naval War College Review, vol. 68, no. 3 (Summer 2015), 76-90.

12. Johnson and Andersen. “Mentoring in the U.S. Navy,” 80.

13. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Kerrie Peraino, Laura Sherbin, and Karen Sumberg, “The Sponsor Effect: Breaking Through the Last Glass Ceiling.” Cambridge: Harvard Business Review (2010), 45.

14. Ibid.

15. Sarah Mimms, “Why Some Male Members of Congress Won’t Be Alone with Female Staffers,” Atlantic, 14 May 2015, .

16. Johnson and Andersen. “Mentoring in the U.S. Navy.”

17. Gordon Allport, The Nature of Prejudice (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1954), 58-59.

18. Joan C. Williams and Rachel Dempsey, What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know (New York: NYU Press, 2014), 25-25, 128.

19. Kathryn Taafe McLearn, Diane Colasanto, and Cathy Schoen, Mentoring Makes a Difference: Findings from the Commonwealth Fund: 1998 Survey of Adults Mentoring Young People, 1998, .

Dr. Johnson is professor of psychology in the department of Leadership, Ethics, and Law at the U.S. Naval Academy and a faculty associate in the Graduate School of Education at Johns Hopkins University. He is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and recipient of Johns Hopkins’ Teaching Excellence Award. Dr. Johnson is the author of more than 100 journal articles and book chapters—many on the topic of mentoring—and 13 books, the latest being Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women (Bibliomotion, 2016).


Dr. Smith is an active-duty U.S. Navy captain and associate professor of sociology in the department of Leadership, Ethics, and Law at the Naval Academy. He focuses his research in gender, work, and family issues, including dual-career families, military families, women in the military, and retention of women. Dr. Smith is the author of numerous journal articles and book chapters, many on the topic of gender and the workplace. He is coauthor of Athena Rising.


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