Don't Let the Petraeus Affair Keep Men From Mentoring Women

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Cross-gender professional relationships can be dangerous but are essential to the progress of working women.

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Thanks, David. Thanks, Paula. Your dalliance wreaked havoc on national security, top government agencies, and at least two families. Now, as shown by a recent headline at Forbes questioning the "danger of male mentors," your untoward affair casts further doubts on opposite-sex mentoring relationships, which for most women are a necessity for professional advancement. As if such associations weren't already laden with enough fear and suspicion, this unease will likely increase now that longtime concerns about the too-cozy mentoring by former General Petraeus of his adoring biographer turned out to be well-founded.

Yet, as Jenna Goudreau states starkly in the Forbes article, "Women need powerful mentors to succeed. The majority of powerful leaders continue to be men."

This has been true in my career. I cannot begin to measure how much of who I am professionally is owed to male mentors, men in leadership positions who went out of their way to identify and cultivate in me latent qualities I was unaware I had: from the pastor who suggested I act as spokesperson of an activist organization when I had no real public speaking skills, to the headmaster who asked me after one year of teaching in his school to become its principal, to the professor who took me to lunch during my first overwhelming semester of graduate school and ended up being director of my doctoral dissertation, to the college dean who encouraged me to take my current position as department chair and empowered and supported me in that role in every way.

Unless one counts my mother and Mrs. Ingersoll, my first grade Sunday School teacher at Folsomdale Baptist Church, I've never had a woman as mentor. This may be, of course, partially because of the conservative contexts in which I have spent most of my life—but not entirely. The world at large, it seems, doesn't fare much better.

For example, the Harvard Business Review published this month an analysis of a recent Catalyst study on the lack of "game changing roles" women professionals hold. While women in the study were found to be more likely than men to be assigned a mentor, HBR stated that the study

supports our past findings that women feel "mentored to death," receiving endless development without subsequent advancement opportunities. Those findings also showed that having more mentors didn't lead to advancement; rather, having senior mentors who are in a position to provide sponsorship did.

Similarly, Inc. reported recently on a panel of female entrepreneurs and investors who spoke at the International Women's Forum World Leadership Conference about the role male mentors played in their success. It was men rather than other women who played the most critical roles in their achievements, said the panelists. One, Mariam Naficy, founder of e-commerce sites Minted.com and Eve.com, asserted, "Male mentors for women are critical. It has been critical for me." Yet, distressingly, a 2011 study by The Center for Talent Innovation found that 64 percent of men in senior positions shun sponsorship of junior women in order to avoid speculations of an affair. I can relate to this, too.

The founder of the university where I teach and serve as department chair, the late Jerry Falwell, was well known for being scrupulous in his concern to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. He proclaimed that if he as a church pastor were driving alone in his car and passed a female parishioner walking in the rain, he would not pick her up. Of course, in his position—one haunted by the spectres of many similarly-placed men whose improprieties went well beyond mere appearance—his caution was understandable, wise even.

But his example has trickled down to the lesser mortals in sometimes awkward ways. Carpooling and conference travel in mixed company are problematic for some. I once had a colleague invite me to lunch to discuss some work-related tensions. Addressing the problems over a casual meal seemed like a good idea, food generally making everything easier. But my colleague asked his wife to accompany us. The things we needed to discuss, needless to say, didn't get discussed, and what was supposed to be a work lunch, ironically, turned into a social situation, and a rather awkward one at that. (Even the Greek salad, sadly, was a waste of time.) This type of behavior isn't uniform among my colleagues, but it happens often enough to be a potential detriment to workplace relationships and functioning.

Yet, paradoxically, such heightened cautions around an opposite-sex professional association serve only to sexualize an otherwise innocent work relationship by placing sex front and center. (Fortunately, by the cosmic rule of some benevolent workplace deity, a co-worker's appeal is inversely proportional to the level of his assumption that you actually want to sleep with him.) Furthermore, workplace liaisons certainly aren't limited to opposite-sex pairings. So simply shunning such situations won't do. Instead we must learn to deal with the sexual dynamics of mentoring relationships prudently and effectively for the good of the workers, the workplace, and society.

As a professor, I teach both male and female students. Occasionally, self-selecting students seek advice and mentoring beyond the classroom. (As I like to say, I don't pick favorites; they pick me.) Perhaps because the courses I teach are heavy on dead white males (more of my male mentors!), at least half of these students, perhaps more, are men. And because I am their professor, I owe to them, too, as much professional mentoring as I can offer my female students. And because I teach in a religious institution in which we strive to live integrated, holistic lives that are not divided into compartments, professional mentoring often entails spiritual and personal advising, too.

Yet, healthy, wise boundaries are always a necessary part of the mentoring equation and must be tailored to fit each mentoring relationship regardless of the sexes involved; sexual dynamics are just one of many factors that shape the relationship, one that should be considered along with all the others. I would, for example, never consider any of the men who mentored me in very specific, discrete aspects of my professional or spiritual life to be a "very close mentor" (as Paula Broadwell described her relationship with David Petraeus), nor would I want my male students to use such a term about me—although a few of my female students could justifiably use this descriptor.

Thus caution is wise—in all mentoring relationships, of course, but particularly in opposite-sex (or, in some cases, same-sex) mentoring relationships. The idea that a working relationship between a man and a woman is inherently and necessarily sexual—as some people seem to believe—is as wrongheaded as its polar opposite: that our sexual natures can be utterly repressed and denied at will. Human beings—and all human relationships, even work-related ones—are complex, vulnerable, unpredictable, and mysterious (even to our own selves). To pretend otherwise is foolish and dangerous. Perhaps we can thank David and Paula for offering that reminder while we go about the business of helping to advance one another and our professions regardless of our sex.

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Karen Swallow Prior is professor of English at Liberty University. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me and a contributing writer for Christianity Today

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