Review of ‘Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women’
CW: Mentions of discrimination and sexual violence
It’s been 102 years since the first wave of the Women’s Rights Movement allowed women the right to vote. Yet it took another 50 years until the second wave that allowed women the legal autonomy to have a life outside of being a wife and mother. In celebration of Women’s History Month, I ask the question: How can men be better mentors and allies to women in a professional environment? It is in that vein that I provide my critique of this book. I don’t know what’s more insulting: dealing with gender bias in the workplace or two men claiming to be subject matter experts on gender bias in the workplace while telling other men how to mentor women.
Mentoring women in the workplace has been a challenge. In recurring and recent discussions, male friends have reached out to me regarding how to be a better mentor to women. Another good friend of mine posed the question after he was selected to command an Army unit consisting of 500–700 Soldiers (i.e. a battalion for my fellow veterans). I shared my experiences in how I was mentored and offered insight into the shortcomings of the men I worked with regarding their performance as mentors when I wore the uniform.
My book club buddy recommended Athena Rising as a part of the continued discussion regarding female senior leadership representation in the military. Surprisingly, two more friends mentioned the book as a tool to become better leaders and mentors to female service members. With three good friends reading it, deciding to download this book was a no-brainer.
W. Brad Johnson and David Smith mentioned the criticisms they would face writing a book regarding the challenges of women in the workplace. Divided into two sections, the introduction was pretty difficult for me to process without feeling like both men are mansplaining challenges women experience. For the uninformed, mansplaining is a pejorative term meaning “to comment on or explain something to a woman in a condescending, overconfident, and often inaccurate or oversimplified manner.”
Athena, the Goddess
The authors reference the Greek goddess Athena as some sort of model that women in the workplace should aspire to in Chapter 1. Besides the fact that she is a fictional character, likely written by a man, Athena is a problematic character in regards to the challenges that women face. Here is why.
Athena is the virgin Goddess of military strategic warfare, wisdom, and handicraft. She was the only God of Greek mythos that was born with complete armor from the head of Zeus. While history regards her as the protector and patron of cities. Athena is regarded as a more superior strategist than her brother Ares. Accordingly, men have the highest level of respect for her due to her prowess in the realm of warfare. Johnson and Smith dedicated the entire first chapter that women should aspire to achieve that level of respect. Despite being a woman, I would argue that Athena was not an advocate and supporter of women. She is quite the opposite. An example of Athena’s abuse of women can be illustrated in the tragic story of Medusa.
For readers of Greek mythology, many would recall Medusa as the monster Perseus killed in order to slay the sea monster and rescue the princess. But how many recall the origin story of Medusa? Would it surprise you to know she was once human? Medusa was a virgin priest in Athena’s temple. Raped by Poseidon on the altar, she called out to Athena for help. Instead of coming to her aid, Athena cursed Medusa and transformed her into a Gorgon while unknowingly pregnant. Her offspring Pegasus was born from her death. Medusa was not only a rape victim of Poseidon but a victim of Athena’s rage all because she was no longer a virgin. An ironic, dark, and grim parallel to the military’s justice system for victims of sexual assault. Check out Medusa’s tragic story here.
This was one of many stories of Athena’s cruelty towards women. Like Athena, many of the women interviewed in Athena Rising did not publicly advocate for the equality and representation of more women in positions of leadership across society. As mentioned, many were overwhelmed with a flood of subordinates vying for their attention in the form of mentorship.
Let’s take the Army, for example; the last time a woman was promoted to 4 stars was in 2008 when Ann Dunwoody was selected as the Commanding General of Army Materiel Command. Some would argue it wasn’t her fault and that being the only one at the table would hinder such a voice. Fast forward 12 years, the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, and the former Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, admitted to delaying the nomination of Lieutenant General Laura Richardson to General because of anticipated resistance from the Trump Administration due to her gender. This is a perfect example of a room full of men who knew she was the best-qualified person for the promotion but denied her the opportunity because of her gender.
If the top-ranking officer in the U.S. Armed Forces wouldn’t advocate for a female general, I can only imagine the number of commanders at the operational and tactical level denying female leaders positions and promotions because of their gender.
Reading a book written by men about women in the workplace is beyond cringe-worthy. The only women Johnson and Smith interviewed were women who were promoted to the highest or most senior leadership position. Yet many missed the point where women in entry and mid-level positions were subjected to hostile work environments, sexual harassment, and extreme hazing by their peers, subordinates, and in some situations — seniors. While being subjected to these challenges, women are often held to different standards for workplace performance than men. It is often the lack of awareness regarding these biases or mansplaining them away that makes me frustrated with surface-level attempts to level the playing field. This book is one of these attempts.
The Intersectionality of Race and Being a Woman
Two old white men writing a book on mentoring women in the workplace missed the mark of the most obvious thing: the intersectionalities regarding women of color. What would they know? They benefit from the systematic discrimination and bias towards people of color. Despite interviewing Admiral Retired Michelle Howard who is an African American woman, the racist comments followed by her selection to admiral were glossed over. However, she mentioned it when she was interviewed in a 2014 interview with NPR. Johnson and Smith’s mention of racial bias only covered less than a quarter of a page.
They failed to realize, either through omission or commission, that African American women are immediately labeled as hostile and difficult. Asian women are dismissed and treated as if they are invisible and Hispanic women are reduced to insulting tasks like planning parties or making coffee. As men who espouse allyship, the authors (and their advocates) need to be aware of the additional layer of racial bias coupled with gender.
Science to Justify Misogyny
Chapter 4 The Biology and Psychology of Men and Women in Relationships has to be the most cringe-worthy of the chapters. The last time I heard anyone use science to justify prejudice it was the Nazis and doctors during antebellum slavery. Sure it sounded nice and pretty, but it most definitely gave the vibe. What does the number of times a woman cries compared to a man have to do with her ability to do her job? Would this so-called psychological and biological breakdown be a factor if the senior leader in question was homosexual? If a senior was gay and he was attracted to his subordinate would it raise the same issue?
The only time biology should be taken into consideration is if the female employee is pregnant. Creating a safe environment where she can trust you to disclose something deeply personal like the loss of a pregnancy, a difficult pregnancy, complications with the birth, or postpartum depression. Do not assume for her. Do not make the decision for her. Give the employee the safety and space to come to you and address whatever support she needs. Transgendered women are women. Leave your religious beliefs out of the workplace. Transgender women are already subjected to violence and harassment. Once again create the space for them to feel safe and trust you. Do not assume they need your help; let them come to you.
You would never assume a man needs your assistance dealing with a personal matter. You would never make a personal career affecting decision for a man without his involvement. You would wait until he comes to you. Afford the same courtesy to the women in your organization. If you won’t do it with a man don’t do it with a woman.
Glossing over Workplace Hostility and Harassment
The most disappointing aspect is its failure to address the microaggression of workplace hostility. This is especially tone-deaf considering Smith is an officer in the United States Navy. Since the time this book was published the number of women coming forward with their accounts of being sexually harassed and, worse, sexually assaulted is continuing to climb at rapid numbers. There are men to this day who feel women do not belong in the military.
When the US Army opened up Ranger School to women, the two first female Rangers were met with threats of rape and harassment on social media. All because they passed the prestigious course. Google “sexual assault in the military”, the numbers are still climbing. Congress is still weighing whether or not the military can be trusted to investigate and prosecute sexual assault — a damning indicator of how this problem is beyond the reach of uniformed leaders to control. And they can’t seem to address the obvious issues regarding their program.
As a senior leader, you should be advocating for all women: not just the women you mentor. Correcting microaggressive behaviors like cutting off a female officer while she is briefing while letting the male officer complete his thoughts. Correcting service members when they use the term “female” in a derogatory way.
Even when I shared my dislike for the book in my Book Club on Facebook, one member was bold enough to say the authors were experts on women because they were married. Another completely dismissed my opinion citing the book was, “For men who mentored women. It met the intent”.
Just two examples of microaggressive behaviors women in the workplace face on a regular basis. Another microaggressive comment, “I know the authors personally,” continues to dismiss the concerns myself and other women address regarding how a woman should be mentored. Extending your personal trust doesn’t pass for logical arguments and transparent action — in fact, personal trust is how sexual predators hide in our workplaces (he’s a good father, husband, boy scout leader — I trust him. That should be enough for you).
It’s the same language used when Congressman Yoho was verbally scolded by his peers after he called Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez a bitch. Instead of apologizing for his behavior, he responded, “I have a wife and daughters”. I guess that’s supposed to be enough to make him a good guy.
The Curse of the Likeability Factor
Both military and civilian women of all professional fields have struggled with the likeability factor. Women are judged on whether or not they are likable. Never mind the fact they are the best and most qualified person for the job or position. Oftentimes they are passed over because they are simply disliked.
When mentoring women, men should check their bias on whether she is likable or not. Ask yourself would it matter if she was a man? Would his likeability matter? I can personally recall being told by my commanding officer I wasn’t going to receive a good evaluation because I wasn’t likable. It didn’t matter I had accomplished everything he listed and met his intent. Because he didn’t like me or claimed other officers didn’t like me. I received a low-performance rating that threatened my ability to be competitive to the next rank.
Can Men Be Effective Mentors to Women?
Society has a serious problem with misogyny and viewing women as capable equals. This book was a painful reminder of the blatant sexism I personally experienced when I was an Officer in the United States Army. It also brought to light the neglect senior female leaders made when it came to addressing workplace hostilities and harassment. Instead of changing the status quo they upheld and supported it.
While the book was intended for men to learn how to be better mentors to women, it missed the mark completely by placing women into this cookie-cutter persona an ideal fictional character. No breadth and depth of the complexities associated with being a woman. If you don’t expect men to divulge intimate information about themselves, why would you expect women to do so? Unless you are caught in a mental prison of your own biases.
Can a man be an effective mentor to a woman? In my honest opinion, I don’t think so. As a woman, the lingering concern of “why” will always be in the back of my mind. I cannot speak for all women just myself. Will my ability to be mentored be clouded by a mentor’s potential physical attraction towards me? If I reject a sexual advance, will it cost me? While the book addresses the different types of behaviors a man exhibits when he works with a woman, everyone is a threat. And the concern is very real to any woman who has been harassed, assaulted, or personally knows of someone who has been.
However, I know there are men who are trying to do better. For men in leadership roles or serving as mentors, I would recommend a woman as their sound boarding and an additional oversight layer to cover their blind spots. There are unique challenges women experience that men will not get or understand. So having a woman as a confidante and advisor will reduce the blind spots.
I would not recommend this book to any man who is progressive and forward-thinking in regards to the advancement and equality of women in the workplace. I would not recommend this book to women because it mansplains the issues professional women experience on the daily. It missed the mark on so many other issues I did not mention in this review. Honestly, I think it was written to sell and make money vs having an open and honest conversation regarding misogyny and workplace hostility towards women.
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