Perceiving Everyday Athenas
Whether at the boardroom table or the break room table, women are more likely to be overlooked or just plain ignored by men. Sometimes, they don’t even get a seat at the table. And when they do get a seat, their ideas and contributions are not always taken seriously. Thinking about her own early career experience at the executive table, Kathy Hannan, partner for diversity and corporate responsibility for KPMG, said, “I had been sitting around the key leadership table. At times, I would make a comment and it would get a tepid response, maybe some head nodding. Then, two or three people down the line, a male says exactly what I just said and everyone says, ‘Wow,’ and starts discussing it like it’s a new idea.” Several women interviewed for this book recounted stories in which their input was dismissed by male bosses; some felt so undervalued that they quit contributing their insights.
In the 21st century workplace, how do we make sense of these women’s experiences? When asked, men often fail to even recognize that these dismissive episodes are occurring. Our tendency as men is to unknowingly sell women at work short, largely as a by‑product of the way we have come to understand men’s and women’s roles in society. Despite the fact that there are almost twice as many women in the workforce today, by percentage, than there were in 1950, we still find persistent stereotypes about women’s roles at work and home. Automatic perceptions and assumptions that women are nurturing, warm, and communal may sound positive, yet they can be limiting and undermine women’s opportunities to compete and excel in the workplace. Our gendered perceptions make it too easy to overlook those everyday Athenas around us.
As you can surmise, our biased man perceptions about women create for them a prickly double bind. On one hand, we may perceive our female mentees as compassionate and caring nurturers, but in so doing we may be unable to envision them as the “take charge and move out” leaders we need for key projects and challenging missions. In a similar vein, men may avoid recommending women for assignments that are too challenging or “in the trenches” because we don’t see them as capable or aspiring to these tasks. Sometimes, our deeply engrained protective man scripts get triggered. When this happens, our efforts to “protect” a talented woman actually sabotage her opportunity to compete and prove herself. In our world, the U.S. military, these stereotypes reinforce the perception that women are better suited for staff or support roles than for operational “combatant” roles that lead to the higher echelons of power and leadership.
Unfortunately, the negative consequences of our man perceptions don’t end there. For instance, women who are directive and authoritative at work often get labeled “dragon ladies” and “iron bitches”; they are perceived to be coldhearted, abrasive, and bossy. As guys, we tend to steer clear of these women, often some of the most promising future leaders for our organizations and our nation. And if we find strong women noxious in some way, what does that say about our ability to see them as potential mentees? What are the chances we’ll seek them out, engage, and begin providing crucial career support? In part 2 of this guide, “Mentoring Women: A Manual for Men,” we’ll challenge you to not reinforce these unrealistic perceptions when women at work demonstrate confident, decisive, and industrious behavior.
Volumes of social psychology research reveal that men evaluate certain behaviors quite differently when exhibited by a man or a woman. If you think you judge John’s behavior the same as Jill’s—even in identical situations—you’re kidding yourself. For instance, as guys we might be comfortable with yelling at work, or give each other a pass when it happens—what dude doesn’t lose his temper on occasion? But what about a woman who yells? Well, she’s got to be overemotional or dangerous—return of the “PMSing dragon lady.” And if a woman cries, well . . . what’s new? But for a dude to cry or tear up when getting critical feedback . . . now, that’s awkward, just plain “unmanly.” Our perceptions about “appropriate” emotions create another double bind for women. If she doesn’t cry, she’s cold and emotionless. But if he is dry eyed we applaud him for controlling his emotions. Getting the picture? Women who aspire to rise through the ranks and assume leadership roles must confront persistent double binds and inconsistent standards for leadership potential.
Just as important for women at work is what men fail to perceive. The perception that women are nurturing and caring is largely based on our experience of seeing women in family roles as primary caregivers. In fact, women in general do perform more childcare and household chores than men. Evidence shows that working women are 60 percent more likely than men to have full-time working spouses. Why is this important? Because dual-career families have more challenges related to childcare and managing a household, and women in these families end up doing the lion’s share of the domestic work. And, of course, mothers are seen as less committed to their careers. This affects wages, promotions, and hiring, a de facto “motherhood penalty.” Effective male mentors must become alert to stereotypical perceptions of women in the workplace and then find strategies for mitigating their effects on the promising women they champion.
Excerpt from “Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women,” by W. Brad Johnson, Ph.D.; and David Smith, Ph.D. (reprinted with permission of Taylor & Francis Group).
W. Brad Johnson, Ph.D., is professor of psychology in the Department of Leadership, Ethics, and Law at the United States Naval Academy, and a faculty associate in the Graduate School of Education at Johns Hopkins University. A clinical psychologist and former Lieutenant Commander in the Navy’s Medical Service Corps, Dr. Johnson served as a psychologist at Bethesda Naval Hospital and the Medical Clinic at Pearl Harbor where he was the division head for psychology. He is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and recipient of the Johns Hopkins University Teaching Excellence Award. He has served as chair of the American Psychological Association’s Ethics Committee and as president of the Society for Military Psychology. Dr. Johnson is the author of more than 100 journal articles and book chapters—many on the topic of mentoring—and 12 books, in the areas of mentoring, professional ethics, and counseling.
David Smith, Ph.D., is an active duty U.S. Navy Captain and permanent military professor in the Department of Leadership, Ethics, and Law at the United States Naval Academy, having served four years as the chair. A former Navy Pilot, Dr. Smith led diverse organizations of women and men culminating in command of a squadron in combat and flew more than 3,000 hours over 19 years, including combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a sociologist trained in military sociology and social psychology, he focuses his research on gender, work, and family issues, including dual career families, military families, women in the military, and retention of women. Dr. Smith is the author of numerous journal articles and book chapters—many on the topic of gender and the workplace.