How Men Benefit From Having Female Mentors

The advantages to a more holistic approach to mentorship

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I think powerful men should mentor women. Even after the David Petraeus scandal. I agree with Karen Swallow Prior, chair of the English and modern languages department at the university where I work (and my current boss), that women need powerful mentors to succeed and that the majority of powerful leaders continue to be men. But here's the rub: just because men are in positions of power doesn't mean that they're mentoring other men. In fact, recent research suggests that, if you need a mentor, your best bet is a woman, regardless of your gender.

The choice of whom to mentor has always included gender as one of the major considerations. When I mean "always," I mean it in the most ancient of terms. For instance, in the Odyssey¸ Odysseus leaves his home to go fight in the Trojan War. Before he leaves, Odysseus asks a wise old friend to watch over his son, Telemachus, while he was away. That friend's name? Mentor. While Odysseus was fighting, the goddess Athena, also disguised herself as Mentor to watch over Telemachus, thus creating history's first description of a female-male mentor relationship.

And that struck a chord with me.

As I read Karen's article, I remembered that, aside from a very few brief instances, I have rarely had male professional mentors. Whether it's a reflection of my chosen career path or my generation, I'm not certain, but my professional mentors have nearly all been women From my undergraduate advisor, to my master's thesis chair, to my dissertation chair, to my current job, my professional mentoring relationships have all been guided by women.

Because of these mentors, I have not experienced much of the energetic angst that my father's generation wrestled with when it came to women in charge. For me, the question of whether women should be in leadership was answered in light of the reality that they already were.

There's one thing I've learned from these women: They mentor holistically. When I think of mentoring, I reflect on my years teaching in a public school in Lynchburg, Virginia. There, in the faculty lounge, I ate lunch every day for two years with Ann, Henrietta, Myra, and Carol: my mentors while I was there at Heritage High School.

Personally, each carried a grace toward their colleagues that reflected their care and concern, burnished over many years of service to their community. They were lovely, but they didn't suffer fools, either. I could come in with a problem or a complaint, but an excuse often brought silence and a focused attention to eating. Our faculty lounge was an excuse-free zone—lunch was too short for that.

Professionally, by contrast, each of these women was, to put it mildly, intimidating. For instance, Ann began her teaching career before the Lynchburg City Schools were integrated, so she saw the changing landscape of her classroom, her city, and her nation. And she taught students the value of literacy in the midst of all that. Henrietta, our department chair, showed me how to navigate the murky waters of public school administration, often with a sense of humor that pointed me in the right direction without plunging me into cynicism. Carol, our speech and forensics coach, convinced me that an hour invested in an after-school activity could change the course of a student's life. Myra brought energy to her work that I still try to imitate—she'd enter a classroom like she'd been shot out of a cannon.

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Matthew Towles is an assistant professor of English at Liberty University.

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