Real Advice for Women Seeking Mentors and Allies

Portrait of David SmithIf your mentors all look like you, you have a mentor problem. Same goes if they all have similar backgrounds and work histories or if you have only one—or none.

“Your mentors should be a diverse network,” says David Smith, an expert on gender workplace issues and co-author of Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women. “If they’re not, you’re missing out on key perspectives and information, and you’re probably not being challenged enough in your thinking.”

Of course, for women in male-dominated fields such as the military (Smith’s background), the problem isn’t having too many mentors who look like you (i.e., female). The problem is having a mentor, period.

“It’s more comfortable to gravitate toward people who are like us, especially in the wake of #MeToo, but male mentors need to reach out more to women, especially because of #MeToo,” says Smith, an associate professor of sociology at the United States Naval War College, whose interest in the influence of gender on careers stems from his and his wife’s both being naval officers early on in their marriage.

On the other hand, women shouldn’t be waiting for a call or tap on the shoulder. “As awkward and challenging as it can be to ask someone to be your mentor—the same or opposite sex—it’s often the only way to initiate the relationship,” Smith says. Here, his tips on how to make the big ask so you can fill those holes in your mentor network.

  1. Take access into account.

Ideally, you want to approach people you have regular interaction or encounters with. “They don’t have to know you well—in fact, it’s the perspective and connections of people who don’t know you well that you should be seeking—but you want to be able to go up to them, say, after a meeting, and ask face to face,” Smith explains. “After all, it’s a personal human connection that you’re trying to make.”

  1. Be specific when breaking the ice.

“Be clear about why you chose the person and what you hope to learn from him or her,” Smith recommends. For example, say, “I am interested in X sub-department or field and I’d love to learn how you broke into it and get your advice.” This way, they know your intentions and what they are getting into from the get-go.

  1. Keep the ask short.

“Normally, this is a very quick conversation,” Smith says. “You give the specifics and then you ask if you can schedule a talk.”

  1. Lay out the terms of the relationship at the first meeting.

If the person is friendly, forthcoming and helpful at your initial talk, ask if you could continue meeting. If they say yes, sort out how often you’ll meet and for how long. You probably want to start with a smaller commitment, knowing you can always revisit and reassess it once you’ve built up a rapport.

  1. Own the relationship.

“Don’t leave it to the mentor to lead things,” Smith says. “Come to every meeting prepared. Bring questions and an agenda, and do any homework the mentor suggests.”

David Smith will be speaking at our inaugural Workplace Summit on February 21, 2019, as well as at the Conference the following day.


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