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March 08, 2018

MENtors

Men Must Continue to Step Up and Mentor the Women in Their Ranks

By LTC Christina Bembenek

What do Joan of Arc and Eleanor Roosevelt have in common? 

They represent two of only 10 statues depicting women among the hundreds that grace the parks and squares of our nation’s capital. For little girls visiting Washington, this suggests that the values, struggles, and triumphs of America originated mainly in these men memorialized in stone.

Women’s experience in today’s military is similar: Women look up to and model themselves after their leaders, the vast majority of whom are male. At U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) – the busiest operational command, currently running the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria – there are 121 female field grade officers and one female general officer in comparison to the 807 male field grades and 21 male generals. These statistics are similar to those of the military as a whole, where male officers outnumber women 5-to-1. It is human nature for people to be most comfortable advising those who have similar backgrounds or experiences; thus, men will be more inclined to reach out to mentor other men. However, because men will likely always outnumber women in the military, it is critical that they strive to be effective and inspiring mentors to the women in their ranks.

Effective mentorship is important in the military to ensure junior leaders are prepared to handle the rigors of combat, think critically in an unpredictable world, and successfully guide their troops. The military is a 24/7, whole-person commitment for which no military school or training program is sufficient. However, gender-focused mentorship is an awkward topic for both men and women to discuss. Like many of my female colleagues, I often deliberately set gender aside in the execution of my military duties. We don’t need or want special treatment or consideration because we are women. On the contrary, we’ve tried very hard to just be “soldiers” so we will, hopefully, be judged on our individual competence alone. 

Effective mentorship is important in the military to ensure junior leaders are prepared to handle the rigors of combat, think critically in an unpredictable world, and successfully guide their troops. 

The reality I have learned in 18 years of service is that gender does matter, and our differences should be both celebrated and sought after because inclusive teams are more effective, efficient, and successful. Forbes’ 2011 survey of 321 executives, titled “Fostering Innovation Through a Diverse Workforce,” found that diversity is a key driver of innovation, crucial for attracting and maintaining talent, and a critical component for success on a global scale. Our military’s success rests on its ability to recruit, train, and promote talented, creative, and dedicated personnel, and effective mentorship programs are critical to this endeavor. Gender is absolutely a factor in mentorship – gender stereotypes, historical social roles for men and women, and perceptions surrounding male and female interactions all affect the mentoring relationship. Male leaders should approach mentoring women with the seriousness, preparation, and dedication with which they approach any other mission.

In their book Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women, W. Brad Johnson and David Smith argue that because organizations that include women in key leadership positions are more effective, balanced, and successful, men must actively work to recruit and develop talented women. However, several obstacles hinder successful mentorship, such as perceptions of impropriety, inexperience interacting with women in the workplace, and implicit biases and stereotypes. I find the implicit biases argument the most compelling because we all bring subconscious biases and historical baggage to our personal relationships, and the same is true of the interactions between mentors and mentees. Most men, for example, have been raised to believe they should protect their wives and daughters. This, in turn, can translate to men encouraging female mentees to pursue easier or safer positions or goals. On the contrary, women in the military do not need fathers or knights in shining armor – what they need is a mentor who will candidly discuss their strengths and weaknesses and work with them to map out a successful and challenging career path. Men must acknowledge any biases and preconceptions they have about women and ensure they do not affect the mentoring relationship.

Well-intentioned but harmful instincts to mentor women differently can pose real harm. During my first deployment to Iraq, I joined a patrol to a remote village to gain a better understanding of the terrain and assist with a force protection assessment of a small outpost. The patrol hit an improvised explosive device, and I treated one of the casualties and helped secure the site. When I returned to the forward operating base (FOB), my brigade commander was furious. “I can’t afford to lose you,” he said before forbidding me to depart the security of the FOB unless I was with him. To my knowledge, no male soldier in his command was ever restricted in this way. My commander had the utmost respect for my competency and voiced as much on multiple occasions – but he still treated me differently, likely out of a desire to protect. This deep-rooted desire, however, can place limits on a woman’s ability to do her job and gain vital developmental experience.  

Well-intentioned but harmful instincts to mentor women differently can pose real harm.

Men in leadership roles may also believe they are doing “what is best” for a woman by ensuring she has sufficient time to care for her family. An active-duty colonel and former brigade commander relayed a story of a senior leader who regularly asked her in meetings if she was getting enough time at home with her kids. He never asked any other person this question, and it did not go unnoticed by her co-workers. It makes one wonder: Were there tasks or opportunities that he withheld because he didn’t want to excessively burden her? There is no way to know, but he may have imposed artificial limitations out of a desire to do what “he thought best” for her. Every woman has a unique family situation, and it is up to her – not her mentor – to prioritize and vocalize when family considerations are likely to impact work requirements.

The mechanics of mentorship, regardless of gender, should not outwardly look different among male and female mentors and mentees. Getting it right is more an issue of personal introspection, preparation, and focus. Male leaders should make a conscious effort to mentor both men and women as unique individuals and “whole” persons, covering career, personal, and family goals. All service members will experience high and low career points; times that are better for starting a family; and tough decisions on assignments, deployments, and retirement. These are complex enough to navigate without allowing biases or stereotypes to guide a mentor’s advice or suggested career goals. Mentors must be comfortable talking through career paths that may be significantly different from their own and must truly listen to their mentee’s interests and concerns. A woman – or, really, any mentee regardless of gender – may have different career goals and find personal satisfaction in achieving career milestones that differ from her mentor’s. It is the mentor’s job to push, challenge, and assist his mentee to achieve her full potential by following her own path.

Avoiding the perception of impropriety when a senior-ranking man and younger woman form a close mentoring relationship may be the one area where men question whether it is possible to mentor equally. In today’s environment, where it seems like every day a new (and often respected) male figure is charged with sexual harassment, it is natural that men are concerned about allegations of inappropriate behavior or rumors about improper relationships. But the best way for men to prevent these perceptions is simple: First, treat everyone with dignity and respect; and second, create an environment where mentorship – of both men and women – is a common and public occurrence. At CENTCOM, General Joseph Votel is widely respected as an outstanding mentor for both men and women and has created opportunities for women to serve in key positions in many of his units, including the Joint Special Operations Command. No one would question his individual mentorship of a woman, simply because he openly does it all the time. It also bears mentioning that the first book he highlighted on his 2018 Commander’s Reading List was Athena Rising

Men must also ensure they mentor not only the hard-charging, outspoken, athletic women who remind them of themselves, but also the more reserved women who take seats in the back of the room. Brigadier General (BG) Michelle Schmidt, the U.S. Special Operations Command J2 (senior intelligence officer), has had almost exclusively male mentors. She is also a jumpmaster with over 100 jumps, former chief of staff for the 82nd Airborne Division, and the top scorer in an armor operations/tactics competition as a West Point cadet. She was going to succeed regardless of how many men reached out to provide guidance and advice, but it is easy to mentor those already on a path to success. Men may be hesitant to counsel the women who appear to be struggling or do not fit the usual mold – but these are the ones who need mentorship the most. They may not be CrossFit fanatics or the loudest voice at the table, but they may be brilliant strategists, planners, or commanders who will never achieve senior positions without effective mentorship and encouragement from their male leaders.

Men must also ensure they mentor not only the hard-charging, outspoken, athletic women who remind them of themselves, but also the more reserved women who take seats in the back of the room.

Since men hold the vast majority of military leadership positions and fill nearly all of the positions on military promotion boards, they must be open to opportunities for deserving women to rise up in the ranks. Competence must remain the number one priority in selection, but men may have to look a little deeper and actively seek out women who will succeed in challenging positions – often for different reasons than their peers. Women are socialized to share credit for their accomplishments with everyone who had a hand in their success, which often results in minimizing their true contribution. This is magnified in the Army (and in the other services), where we are taught to work as a team. Leaders should ensure that performance reports accurately reflect an individual’s accomplishments and that candidate slates include a number of competent women. They should also seek to fill high-impact, high-visibility assignments like commander’s action and strategic studies groups with more than just the token female.

In the military intelligence community, opportunities to lead training events or units are relatively few, compared to combat arms specialties like infantry, so they are highly valued by intelligence officers. As a senior major, I had the opportunity to supervise a complex training event involving 40 foreign soldiers and sailors executing a six-day exercise in the mountains of Utah. I’ll never forget at the end of the exercise when my brigade commander, COL Tony Hale, praised me for a flawless inaugural event – I immediately responded that my soldiers had worked hard and done an excellent job. He replied, “You need an orchestra to play all the instruments, but it takes a conductor to make music.” There was no question that he valued my contribution – he had selected me for the task.

As mentors, men must also share their social capital by openly praising their mentees’ achievements, particularly in introducing them to influential members in their professional circles. Respected male leaders who regularly promote the work of female service members instantly bestow credibility upon them. This enables a servicewoman to stand out as a superior performer, not just as one of the few women in the unit. One example of this was the senior commander in Iraq who regularly highlighted his J2’s personal intelligence assessments to leaders at CENTCOM. This spoke highly of her credibility and competence, and it is no surprise that Major General Karen Gibson was subsequently selected to serve as the CENTCOM J2.

I have personally benefited from male leaders who have shared their social capital and introduced me to key leaders in military and national security circles. Several of the senior officers I serve with have introduced me as the next 82nd Airborne Division G2 (senior intelligence officer), and this introduction has an immediate impact on others – they instantly view me as an exceptionally capable and noteworthy officer because this is a highly coveted and competitive assignment. Personally, I would never introduce myself in this manner, but I am grateful to work with male officers who will. Sharing social capital includes bringing women’s accomplishments out front and introducing them to key players in their profession. This costs nothing for men but pays immeasurable dividends for women.

Men should also encourage mentorship forums that focus on women – not to the exclusion of men, but along the lines of “Lean In” circles, the discussion groups made famous by Sheryl Sandberg which focus on women’s issues in the workplace but welcome male participation. Women are often reluctant to establish or participate in “women’s groups” because it may appear that they are not team players or that they require special considerations. These forums, however, provide an opportunity for women to connect with other women and raise issues they may be uncomfortable speaking about in male-majority forums (i.e., their normal work spaces). A male mentor’s endorsement of a women’s mentorship group is extremely valuable and also provides evidence that leaders care about women’s professional and personal development.   

As mentors, men must also share their social capital by openly praising their mentees’ achievements, particularly in introducing them to influential members in their professional circles.

But women are not off the hook. We must advise men on how to be good mentors, and we must also create opportunities for women in our own professional circles. We can provide men with insight on work-life balance, physical challenges or considerations that may be different for women, and techniques that men can use to challenge a woman to push harder. We must not shy away from touting the accomplishments of the young women in our formations, nor should we fear accusations of favoritism when promoting competent young women and selecting them for challenging opportunities.

When BG Jennifer Buckner took command of the 303rd Military Intelligence (MI) battalion, two of four key positions in the unit were filled by women; when Buckner was commander of the 780th MI Brigade, her deputy commander and operations officer were both women. Although she played a minimal role in selecting personnel for these positions – some were selected by a board, and others were already in place when she took command – rumors developed that she went out of her way to load her staff with women. However, anyone who met these women – who were seasoned combat veterans, Harvard PhDs, and signals intelligence specialists – quickly realized that they were in these positions because they were exceedingly competent and undoubtedly qualified. As BG Buckner puts it, “Every leader is looking to create opportunities for talented people, and we should not be surprised that many of these talented people are women.”

Women must also be aware of their own gender biases and desire to protect the junior women they mentor. Just because we had a difficult time in a certain unit or with certain bosses does not mean we shouldn’t encourage young women to take on those same challenges. Many women are hesitant to recommend military service to their daughters or nieces because they don’t want them to face potential situations of isolation, harassment, embarrassment, and frustration. In the same light, we must ensure that these fears don’t affect our guidance to mentees. We are not their mothers, just as we aren’t looking for our male mentors to play the paternal role.  

Women must also be aware of their own gender biases and desire to protect the junior women they mentor.

Women have come a long way in the military, particularly in the last five years. Ever since Secretary of Defense Ash Carter created opportunities for women to serve in combat arms and attend Ranger school, brave leaders like Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley have been setting the conditions for their success – not ensuring they succeed, but creating the opportunity. Women in the Army today no longer experience the amazement and gratitude that senior women felt when male leaders “let us” participate in airborne operations, lead an all-male platoon, or drive a tank. Young women today can do all these things as long as they have the skills and desire. 

In today’s military, it is no longer enough for a woman to simply keep pace with her male counterparts. Ten years ago, a woman was a superstar if she could just keep up with the men. Now that we have a nearly level playing field, men have higher expectations, and we all have a responsibility to ensure women continue to meet and exceed them. If both men and women focus on being excellent mentors, one day Joan of Arc will surely stand in good company with other female warriors in Washington, and our nation’s youngest girls will be able to look up and be inspired by the statues of women, each of whom arrived on that pedestal through her own merit.

  • LTC Christina Bembenek

    CENTCOM Commander’s Action Group

    Lieutenant Colonel Christina Bembenek is currently the intelligence officer on the U.S. Central Command Commander’s Action Group. She is a West Point graduate and military int...