I think powerful men should mentor women. Even after the David Petraeus scandal. I agree with Karen Swallow Prior, chair of the English and modern languages department at the university where I work (and my current boss), that women need powerful mentors to succeed and that the majority of powerful leaders continue to be men. But here’s the rub: just because men are in positions of power doesn’t mean that they’re mentoring other men. In fact, recent research suggests that, if you need a mentor, your best bet is a woman, regardless of your gender.
The choice of whom to mentor has always included gender as one of the major considerations. When I mean “always,” I mean it in the most ancient of terms. For instance, in the Odyssey¸ Odysseus leaves his home to go fight in the Trojan War. Before he leaves, Odysseus asks a wise old friend to watch over his son, Telemachus, while he was away. That friend’s name? Mentor. While Odysseus was fighting, the goddess Athena, also disguised herself as Mentor to watch over Telemachus, thus creating history’s first description of a female-male mentor relationship.
And that struck a chord with me.
As I read Karen’s article, I remembered that, aside from a very few brief instances, I have rarely had male professional mentors. Whether it’s a reflection of my chosen career path or my generation, I’m not certain, but my professional mentors have nearly all been women From my undergraduate advisor, to my master’s thesis chair, to my dissertation chair, to my current job, my professional mentoring relationships have all been guided by women.
Because of these mentors, I have not experienced much of the energetic angst that my father’s generation wrestled with when it came to women in charge. For me, the question of whether women should be in leadership was answered in light of the reality that they already were.
There’s one thing I’ve learned from these women: They mentor holistically. When I think of mentoring, I reflect on my years teaching in a public school in Lynchburg, Virginia. There, in the faculty lounge, I ate lunch every day for two years with Ann, Henrietta, Myra, and Carol: my mentors while I was there at Heritage High School.
Personally, each carried a grace toward their colleagues that reflected their care and concern, burnished over many years of service to their community. They were lovely, but they didn’t suffer fools, either. I could come in with a problem or a complaint, but an excuse often brought silence and a focused attention to eating. Our faculty lounge was an excuse-free zone—lunch was too short for that.
Professionally, by contrast, each of these women was, to put it mildly, intimidating. For instance, Ann began her teaching career before the Lynchburg City Schools were integrated, so she saw the changing landscape of her classroom, her city, and her nation. And she taught students the value of literacy in the midst of all that. Henrietta, our department chair, showed me how to navigate the murky waters of public school administration, often with a sense of humor that pointed me in the right direction without plunging me into cynicism. Carol, our speech and forensics coach, convinced me that an hour invested in an after-school activity could change the course of a student’s life. Myra brought energy to her work that I still try to imitate—she’d enter a classroom like she’d been shot out of a cannon.
Sure, I learned about teaching and professionalism over the hundreds of lunchtime conversations I had, sitting around that table. Yet I learned something else: these women mentored by focusing the purpose of mentorship, from a purely professional to a more holistic interaction. My professional and personal goals have been taken into consideration. For me, having a woman as a mentor has meant more than professional help, but it hasn’t left out career goal-setting, either. Even though they cared deeply about me as a person and as a professional, our relationship never crossed the line into inappropriate territory.
This larger focus on extra-professional success shows itself in the women that I mentor as well. It never surprises me to see a former student of mine come by to catch up on life, to celebrate a job opportunity, or to show off a new baby. Though my male students experience all of these life events, I usually get these types of visits from my female students. My male students, for the most part, ask for letters of recommendation via email.
In a sense, the expectation that a mentor relationship encompasses more than just an occupational goal is unnerving, which brings us back to the fear of a Petraeus-like decision. Sure, the Petraeus scandal causes people to wonder if mentoring relationships are even worth it, given the risk to career and reputation. After all, if David Petraeus, one of the more disciplined people I’ve ever heard of, can cross the line, what stops mere mortals from doing the same?
We can’t be so cynical as to deny sexual tension. By contrast, we also can’t despair, living in the decided fear that men and women can’t work together without getting the vapors. If we are to recognize that our culture has powerful women who could offer opportunities for men, then we must develop a more nuanced view of male and female relationships.
Yes, we have a post-modern complexity, but there’s an old-fashioned solution, and it doesn’t involve locking us into single-gender professional mentoring relationships. The guiding principle for such relationships remains key for all relationships: respect.
When I say respect, I mean the kind that I’ve experienced from my mentors, where I am given opportunities based on my abilities—but my other relationships and commitments are considered as well. To mentor effectively requires respect for everyone involved.
After all, it is very disrespectful to men and women to limit professional relationships based on gender. When mixed-gender fears automatically supersede professional commitments, the job at hand is put in jeopardy, and respect for the people performing their duties plummets.
It’s what I’d like to see, and I’m positive it’s what Ann, Henrietta, Carol and Myra would want.