Getting Mentoring Right: #Reviewing Athena Rising

Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women. W. Brad Johnson and David Smith. New York, NY: Routledge, 2016.

Mentoring  inherently contains a gendered component. The term mentor comes from the Greek legend of Odysseus; Mentor was the tutor left behind to raise Odysseus’s son, Telemachus. The legend describes how the goddess Athena periodically took Mentor’s form when she needed to impart wisdom or guidance to the young Telemachus. The story doesn’t say whether she chose that form because it was familiar, or because she thought the advice would be better taken from a male figure. Athena’s actions highlight an uncomfortable truth that has remained constant to this day: cross-gender mentoring is difficult to do well. In their new book, Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women, W. Brad Johnson and David Smith tackle the question of why men are terrible at mentoring women and how to fix it. The book is written as a practical, common-sense guide aimed squarely at men who can recognize opportunities for cross-gender mentoring, but aren’t sure how to start.

Athena Rising is structured as two self-contained, yet complementary parts. Part I makes the simultaneous case for the serious deficiencies in men’s mentoring of women and why successful mentoring is so important. Johnson and Smith begin with a compelling summary of the current literature outlining the multiple challenges women face in gendered work environments and why men, as a group, are so bad at cross-gender mentoring. The tone is never hectoring or accusatory; the authors lay out the facts and research in simple, stark terms. The most helpful chapter in this section is Chapter 4, which lays out in unsparing detail the very real biological and psychological factors that hinder professional relationships between men and women. Again, nothing in the text is written as apologia or justification for those difficulties. Given the frequent critique of gender integration efforts as “ignoring biology,” this chapter feels relevant and important. Part I concludes with the important reasons why men can and should mentor women; the clear intent is to provide an impetus for action, supported by Part II.

For those who are already convinced of the obligation to mentor both genders, but aren’t sure how to proceed, Part II provides a step-by-step roadmap of best practices to pursue and pitfalls to avoid. Johnson and Smith begin with the fundamentals of beginning a cross-gender mentoring relationship. Those elements are best summed up with this brilliant quote from RADM Sandra Stosz, Superintendent of the Coast Guard Academy at the time the book was written:

Learn about the woman you want to mentor. Start with ‘what are your interests, what are your aspirations and goals, where do you want to go in your career?’ Meet her where she is and don’t presume that she’s just like you.[1]

Part II also stresses the psychosocial aspects of mentoring, those elements of development squarely focused on personal growth rather than professional growth. The section concludes with a frank and candid discussion about dangers in cross-gender professional development, including the imperative to avoid sexual intimacy (or even the perception of it) in a mentoring relationship.

Johnson and Smith do an amazing job making their case through the strength of their writing and the impressive array of data at their command. They deftly blend the latest academic research with powerful stories of cross-gender mentoring from military and business contexts. The resulting narrative avoids the twin traps of either coming across as a dry ivory tower treatise or lecturing through anecdata. The authors infuse the text with a candid, direct tone; much of the text is addressed to “Gentlemen” or “guys,” leaving no ambiguity that the authors are speaking to superiors, peers, and subordinates of their own gender. That’s appropriate, given that this is a book written by men for men. It also makes it stand out from much of the existing literature on mentoring, which is written by women.

The few weaknesses of the text stem from word choice and how to implement the proposed way forward. The authors repeatedly use the term mentee to describe the junior member of a mentoring relationship; in my book, I voice my concern about that word choice as underscoring a one-sided relationship. The authors obliquely justify the choice by noting the root etymology of protégé as a person under protection. While it’s important to acknowledge that history, it’s equally important to assess how the idea of mentee puts the emphasis on the junior partner as recipient. Also, the many best practices the authors lay out are certainly not limited to women: many of them are equally helpful for same-gender mentoring relationships. To be fair, Johnson has written several books detailing exactly those approaches. The core problem inherent in the text is how to get it in the hands of people who might not be initially receptive to its message. People who believe in cross-gender mentoring will have no problem going through this text. People who doubt its efficacy are unlikely to pick it up in the first place.

Consider this review a first attempt at solving that last problem. If you’re a man, do a quick inventory of your mentoring relationships. If none of them involve women, pick up a copy of this book and use it as an opportunity for structured self-reflection on that topic. If you’re a woman and looking to start a mentoring relationship with a man, use this book as your initial outreach. If nothing else, it will make a great conversation starter to get things going. Good luck!

Ray Kimball is an Academy Professor of Leader Development and Organizational Learning and the author of The Army Officer’s Guide to Mentoring. Comments and feedback on this article are welcome via Twitter or email. The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not  represent those of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Army or the United States Military.

ave a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:

njoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.

Header Image: Statue of Athena in front of the Austrian Parliament in Vienna. (Flickr)


[1] W. Brad Johnson and David Smith, Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women, (New York, NY: Routledge, 2016), 66.