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How Can Men Support Women in the Workplace? A Conversation on Male-Female Mentorship

08/04/2014 05:43 pm ET | Updated Oct 04, 2014
Yuri Arcurs via Getty Images

Co-authored by Bryan Pelley, consultant and advocate for women's rights and gender equity in the workplace

In past posts on gender equity, I have focused a lot of attention on the importance of women supporting one another and engaging each other as mentors - at times to the subtle chagrin of my male colleagues and friends. I still feel strongly about the importance of female networks, but have taken my male colleagues' reactions to heart, and would like to devote some attention to how men can -- and do -- play a critical role in mentoring women and promoting gender equity.

By its very nature, gender equity is a two-sided coin, and as women, we would not be making full strides towards progress if we failed to engage successful men as our champions. But developing close mentoring relationships between men and women isn't always easy, and it can sometimes feel uncomfortable. So rather than tell you myself how to engage men as mentors, and vice versa, I solicited some help from Bryan Pelley -- a phenomenal male mentor of mine and champion for women in my own workplace.

SS: Bryan, you've been a huge advocate for women at all ages and all levels in our company. What is it that motivates you to promote women in the workplace?

BP: This may sound a little wonky, but I know I first really became aware of women's issues when I read The Feminine Mystique as an undergrad -- it really woke me up to the pressures that society places on women and their roles. I also had relationships with several strongly feminist women who helped open my eyes! Then, as a young Army officer, I became acutely aware of a disconnect between women's actual capabilities and the value placed on their contributions. I noticed early on that some of the best officers and NCOs I worked with were women, but there was a something of a culture in the military at the time that women were somehow less capable or second-class citizens. I don't know if it was ever based on a conscious decision, but I guess at some point I just started to do what I could to support my very capable female colleagues whenever I could.

SS: Wow, that's fascinating to hear. It sounds like being around vocal women who cared about these issues, both personally and professionally, played a big role in helping you understand and help other women in their careers. Is that accurate? And can you talk a little more about that?

BP: I do think having close relationships with feminist women at many stages of my life definitely helped me, not just to understand women's perspectives on issues, but also by gradually making me more comfortable having mature conversations with women on gender. I think many men are either uncomfortable speaking frankly about gender or have trouble doing so with maturity. I know I've struggled with both over the years. I do think it is a skill most men have to work to develop - and for most it definitely takes practice.

SS: Broadly speaking, how would you describe your approach towards mentoring women? Is it at all different than your approach towards mentoring men?

BP: I think the first important point is that I do recognize that there are gender-related differences that come into play in the workplace, and I'm comfortable acknowledging and addressing those differences directly. For example, you know I'm more than willing to ask you if I feel like you might be experiencing an unwarranted lack of confidence in a work situation. I think a lot of male colleagues are uncomfortable recognizing gender differences and don't want to call attention to them. It's not necessarily that they aren't supportive or don't care, I think in some cases it's actually motivated by a desire to treat everyone equally and not to seem like they're coddling or belittling very capable women. I'm comfortable with the idea that treating people "equally" doesn't actually mean treating people the same. You sometimes need to make adjustments to make sure people have an equal opportunity to succeed.

SS: That's really interesting, and definitely something I've noticed you do in our work together that's quite unique. (I'm now thinking of a time when we were writing up our career bios for a client event, and you reproached several women, myself included, for not being confident or complementary enough in our self descriptions. It was a good lesson in tough love!) I imagine, though, that as a man it can be tricky to strike that balance between having open conversations about gender and making it too much of a focus. Maybe you can provide some specific advice or tactics you use to develop talented women in the workplace? I definitely have some thoughts on what you've done to help me grow, but am curious to see what you do consciously vs. unconsciously.

BP: It's probably mostly unconscious! One thing I do though is try to recognize common pitfalls the women encounter in the workplace and take active steps to overcome them. Things like implementing "power posing" before meetings. Paying attention to when women are being relegated to note-taker roles, or if they're being talked over in meeting. Or one I see a lot that we have already alluded to -- calling out my women colleagues when it seems like confidence issues are impacting them. But beyond that I think all I really do is try to treat everyone like a professional, each with their own individual needs.

SS: I definitely agree that it's important to treat people equally and as individuals with unique needs and preferences. That said, it's also true that men and women tend to embody different behaviors in the workplace. Can you talk a little bit about any differences you have noticed in the way that young men and women pursue their career paths at different stages? And whether that informs your mentoring style?

BP: Ha! I know from my own experience that as a young male entering the workforce I thought I knew everything, didn't make mistakes, and would be CEO by the time I was thirty. I think I may have been too optimistic :-) I think most young professional men approach the world the same way - it takes us a while for our egos to deflate. I find most young women to be different. I love that most of the young women I've worked with tend to be very level headed with a great degree of insight into what they know and don't know. If anything, I think they go too far in the opposite direction and undervalue their value and contribution to things. So if I have to do anything different, I find I spend time having to (artfully) deflate young men's egos a bit and pumping young women's egos up. It's definitely more rewarding to focus on the latter.

SS: Thanks so much for sharing all of this Bryan. It's been really interesting for me to get some insight into what motivates you to support women in the workplace, and hopefully helpful for men and women who are committed to seeing everyone reach their full potential!