Introduction

At first appearance, these books seem an incongruous pairing. However, in our lives and workplaces, aptitudes of women and men to positively communicate and productively collaborate are essential for successful people, families, communities, organisations and nations. Both of these books, Athena Rising – How and Why Men Should Mentor Women and Raising Boys in the 21st Century - How to help our boys become open-hearted, kind and strong men contain ideas enabling women and men to effectively interact as co-workers while supporting and nurturing our colleagues’ talents, skills and abilities to reach their own professional and personal potential.  

Athena Rising – How and Why Men Should Mentor Women

Athena Rising was selected by General Joseph Votel, Commander United States Central Command (USCENTCOM), as a leadership text for his 2018 Commander’s Reading List.[1] On 04 January 2018, the USCENTCOM staff reviewed and debated this book led in person by General Votel and prominent Central Command female and male military and civilian leadership. Key observations from that event involved commentary on mentoring as a leadership essential, including:

  • Overcommunicate, but don’t overshare.
  • Train, develop and mentor other leaders.
  • Ensure self-awareness and self-reflection of our own weaknesses and biases.
  • Optimise peoples’ contributions enabling organisational trust through demonstrating standards, promoting honesty and sharing credit.
  • Ensure approachability, accessibility and availability to all people.
  • Demonstrate predictability, inclusivity, repeatability and transparency.

One question from the 04 January 2018 discussions was why two men, Dr Brad Johnson and Dr David Smith, both professors at the United States Naval Academy, would write a book on mentoring women? In answer to that question, Johnson and Smith seek thoughtful men to develop organisational talent through ‘opening minds, listening and becoming better employers, colleagues, and men’ while ‘treating people with respect, and conducting [ourselves] with dignity’. Johnson and Smith further emphasise that ‘flexible, collaborative and caring’ businesses and government organisations, require deliberate ‘integration and valuing’ of people’s contributions at all levels of leadership. The following statistics from 2017-2018 demonstrate the change required in Australia to integrate and value all people in our workplaces:

  • Women comprise 47.0% of all employed persons in Australia.
  • Women hold 13.7% of chair positions and 24.9% of directorships, and represent 16.5% of Chief Executive Officers and 29.7% of key management personnel.[2]

Johnson and Smith argue that unless men ‘set the tone for inclusivity in the workplace’, change the way we work and change our approach to women in the workplace, including through mentoring, then these imbalanced statistics will not change. Athena Rising further emphasises that all organisations are:

…in a battle for talent…[and] talent does not have a gender. If we don’t get the very best people into our organisation and into the right jobs…we will sub-optimise our workplace. This could be an issue of [organisational] survival [and success]. Inclusivity is an [organisational] imperative.   

Athena Rising is divided into two parts. Part 1 provides men with information on understanding women and understanding ourselves as men while describing variations in male-female relationships. This part examines barriers and biases disrupting women at work. These include male-to-male social habits, informal rules, gender norms and stereotypes, ‘proving’ potential versus performance, patronising attitudes, and weak workplace peer support. Johnson and Smith also emphasise that unchecked male habits of behaviour, including ‘work stress, lack of social network support, risky behaviour, aggression and violence, alcohol, unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, inadequate sleep and lack of routine medical care’ perpetuate workplace barriers and biases, while reducing an organisation’s collegiality, collaboration and productivity.[3] 

Part 2 describes ideas on mentoring women, including how to ‘engage, encourage, promote and sponsor talented and creative women at work’. This part articulates 46 ideas guiding men on mentoring women within two broad frameworks of mentor self-awareness and mentor actions. These frameworks and ideas are intended to place mentees’ interests first while requiring mentor humility, self-awareness and ethical actions. Within the two frameworks, an amalgam of the best aspects of these 46 ideas for male mentors include:[4]

Mentor self-awareness:

  1. Number 1 priority is do no harm – always promote your mentee’s best interests.
  2. Practice humility – value different perceptions and experiences.
  3. Listen: don’t talk so much – listen with an intent to understand, not to reply.
  4. Maintain a learning orientation – learn about your mentee and from your mentee.
  5. Be direct, honest and unconditionally accepting – freely admit your own imperfections and the limits of your own knowledge and expertise.

Mentor actions:

  1. Encourage career-efficacy support your mentee’s belief they are capable of managing their own educational and career capabilities, including their range and type of career options, and success into the future.[5]
  2. Sharpen, but don’t change - your mentee’s leadership style.
  3. Challenge – encourage, persuade and, if necessary, push your mentee to assume new and unfamiliar tasks and responsibilities.
  4. Create opportunities and put your mentee’s name forward – support and endorse your mentee and enable their access to wider developmental networks.
  5. Encourage excellence, but challenge perfectionism – communicate high, not unrealistic, expectations of your mentee. For example, the Rosenthal and Jacobsen Pygmalion Effect, ‘when we expect certain behaviours of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behaviour more likely to occur’.[6]
  6. Champion assertiveness support and encourage your mentee’s determination to make her perspectives clear and voice heard while realising credit for her accomplishments.

Raising Boys in the 21st Century - How to help our boys become open-hearted, kind and strong men

Our workplaces include men, not boys. But, all of our male colleagues, including this author, were once boys. Therefore, understanding men in our workplaces, and their origins, is important for women and men to effectively interact as co-workers while supporting and nurturing our colleagues’ talents, skills and abilities to reach their own professional and personal potential.

We are a species that has few instincts and must learn complex skills to survive. By watching a person we admire in action, our brain takes in a cluster of skills, attitudes and values. Steve Biddulph opens Raising Boys in the 21st Century stating that ‘Boyhood is transforming’. Today ‘we mostly get mothering right, and fathering is undergoing a great resurgence’.

Biddulph’s aim in Raising Boys in the 21st Century is to ‘make boyhood a happier place’. He further seeks to modify male risky behaviour including (when compared to females) ‘having three times the risk of dying in their teens (mostly from car accidents, suicide or violence) … to nine times the chance of going to jail’. In our daily workplaces, we should pause to remember that ‘most boys are slower at learning to talk and reading and writing, than most girls…and start puberty a year or two later than girls’.

Most importantly for people leading young soldiers in combat and other high-risk occupations, most male ‘brains don’t fully mature until their twenties’. Other differences include, most (but not all) boys developing with greater muscle mass and a predisposition to movement and activity, an excitement about competition, and a love of concrete ways of learning.  

Agnostic of generational norms, Steve Biddulph describes three stages of development for boys and young male adults. Importantly, throughout these stages, mothers ‘set the pattern for their son’s future relationships’ supported by fathers and other significant male influencers. The three stages of development for boys and young male adults include:

Zero to six – the learning to love years, where the boy ‘primarily belongs to his mother’, although fathers and other male influencers also play a big role. The aim of this stage is ‘strong love and security’, particularly though joint-attention sequences such as repeated eye-contact or discussing a book or engaging an object. This stage ‘switches a boy on to life’ as a trusting, warm and welcoming experience. Here the boy develops movement, verbal and social skills including sharing, empathy and kindness.

Six to fourteen – the time when fathers and other male influencers count most, where the boy ‘starts wanting to learn to be a man’ and ‘looks to his father for interest and activity’, while mothers remain close and involved. The aim of this stage is to ‘build confidence and skill while developing kindness and playfulness’ achieving a balance and enabling the boy to feel secure about being male. Adult males optimise these years with their sons through listening, talking, honesty, kindness, humility, respect, responsibility and undertaking mutually enjoyable activities.

Three big life skills emerge in these years, continuing throughout their lives, teaching a boy how to:

  • respond comfortably to discipline and boundaries – teaching boys to remain calm and let go of issues. Learning to know ‘rough and tumble’ while understanding rules, demonstrating self-control and knowing when to stop’.
  • express emotions, especially emotions that make them feel vulnerable – never tell a boy to stop crying.
  • use words to solve problems – making informed choices and helping boys through vulnerable situations. Reading to boys, and encouraging them to read, are both vital in developing these verbal and critical thinking skills.

Fourteen to adult – the years when boys need male mentors, and adults who care, in addition to their parents. Biddulph emphasises that parents cannot raise teenage boys without getting help of other adults. In organising suitable mentors for their son, Mum and Dad step back a little so he can learn ‘skills, responsibility and self-respect’ from other adults and join more with adult society and community. In these years, strong social groups, where boys can develop and contribute their talents, are important such as ‘an active community organisation, a family minded sport (emphasising fun, friendship and fitness), a whole-of-person oriented school, or a group of friends who really care about each other’.

As most male ‘brains don’t fully mature until their twenties’, our workplaces also provide ‘strong social groups’ for young men. These social groups include workplace initiation, such as recruit or initial officer training in the military, or orientation programs in business and the public sector, which for some males marks their entry to full-time employment and independence as adults. As thresholds into adult life, we cannot overstate the importance of perfecting these initiation events for our young people.

For our young males, professional education, including assigned reading, continues the development of male abilities to solve problems through thinking, connecting, talking and optimising our choices. Our young males need boundaries including: who is in charge? what are the rules? will those rules be fairly applied? With boundaries set, our responsibility as leaders is to ensure our young male employees continue to learn and know that it is ‘possible to be energetic and safe, boisterous and thoughtful, adventurous and responsible’.

Participating in sport through our workplaces provides a practical demonstration of life values for young males. These values include:

  • dignified losing
  • modest winning
  • enabling team success
  • trusting our colleagues
  • providing best efforts
  • working for a long-term goal or objective
  • understanding that almost everything in life improves with practice

As leaders we must remain conscious of the needs of young men in our organisations. We must ensure we communicate positively, encourage collaboration and value productivity to enable successful people, families, communities, organisations and nations. Biddulph emphasises that, ‘girls ask for help, but boys often just act for help’. Therefore if a male appears as a discipline or performance problem, they may simply need our help as their mentors and leaders.

Conclusion

Athena Rising – How and Why Men Should Mentor Women and Raising Boys in the 21st Century - How to help our boys become open-hearted, kind and strong men are different, yet complimentary books. Both promote a theme of respect for each other, regardless of our differences, to enable harmonious, productive and collaborative homes, communities and workplaces.

In turn, both books contain ideas enabling women and men to effectively interact as co-workers while supporting and nurturing our colleagues’ talents, skills and abilities to reach their own professional and personal potential.