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

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 and, 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.

Presented by

Karen Swallow Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University and a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me and Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More.

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