How to run mentorship programs that break the glass ceiling

We're joined by W Brad Johnson, PhD to discuss how to design mentoring programs that promote female advancement. The secret? We need more male leaders to step up and mentor high talent women.
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Ryan: Hello everyone. Thanks for joining us. Today we have Dr. Brad Johnson here with us. Dr. Brad Johnson is a 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 John Hopkins University. He's also a clinical psychologist and a former commissioned officer in the Navy's Medical Service Corps. He's an award-winning mentor, author, and expert on the topic of mentoring and gender in the workplace. His recent books include Good Guys, how Men can become better allies for Women in the Workplace, the elements of Mentoring and Athena Rising, how and Why Men Should Mentor Women. He speaks around the globe on topics of mentorship and cross-gender workplace relationships. And he's here with us today to discuss how to design mentoring programs that break the glass ceiling and promote female advancement. Thank you for joining us today, Dr. Johnson.

Dr. Brad Johnson: Thanks, Ryan. Happy to be with you.

Ryan: Great. Before we jump into things, to help us learn a little bit more about you and your background, can you share with us how your career led you to become interested in studying mentorship, specifically mentorship for women?

Dr. Brad Johnson: Yeah. So I'll try and keep a brief, there's a long story, but, you know, just on the mentoring side of it, Ryan, I was trained as a clinical psychologist and spent my first four years doing full-time clinical work in the military specifically. And then I went into a doctoral program as a faculty member, and my dissertation students were all researching depression. I was doing treatments for depression in my research, and I found it depressing, [laugh]. And one of my students came to me with this really interesting article on mentoring in graduate school, and he said, Hey, I think I want to actually do this for my doctoral dissertation. And I thought, that sounds really interesting. And so working with that grad student on that mentoring dissertation really set the die. It totally changed the course of my research. I left all the clinical depression stuff behind and just started researching mentoring relationships. And, you know, now it's 30 some years later. And I've been doing that really my whole career. So that's what's got me started on the mentoring. I find these relationships so aspirational and positive compared to things that are a little more clinical.

Ryan: Mm-Hmm.

Dr. Brad Johnson: And then the part about gender, you know, I have noticed the research and mentoring data for years and years, Ryan, showing that women get less mentoring. They get lower quality mentoring relationships often. And even if they have a mentor, they often don't get the sponsoring that can go with great mentorship. So, pushing her forward for career opportunities, it just doesn't happen for women as much. I also, you know, have got women in my personal life that I have, you know, my sister is also a clinical psychologist in the military, just like me. And she encounters things every day that I never do, you know, being told to smile more or getting pushback when she gives people feedback because she's too emasculating or being told not to outshine men. So I think for me it's been both the data and the experiences of women I know and also the business case showing when we get to more gender balance in our organizations, we do better, which is simply a bottom line issue. So, I've wondered how to get more men engaged because men often avoid relationships with women.

Ryan: Mm-Hmm, very good points there. And your books, specifically Athena Rising, have some really potent findings, some of which, I think you touched on there. I'm curious to ask quickly about your book, Athena Rising. You published it in 2019, if I'm not mistaken. Have you noticed any changes come about since then in the workplace, just with your discussions and the work you've been doing?

Dr. Brad Johnson: Yeah. It actually, believe it or not, it was published in 16 and then it was republished by Harvard Business in 2019. But in 16, when it came out you know, we were really active in promoting how men can lean into these developmental relationships with women, why it matters. All of our research for Athena Rising was interviewing women and asking them, hey, when a male really shows up as a great mentor, what does he do? What do you most appreciate behaviorally? And we interviewed women across the spectrum, different disciplines and professions. And so Athena Rising was really a manual for men about how to be better in this mentoring space with women. So, that came out in 16. In 2017, Me Too goes widespread, you know, and you're looking at all the data post Me Too, showing that 60% of men in corporate America are saying, whoa, I don't do mentoring with women. It's too risky, too dangerous. A lot of false narratives about me too, right? [Laugh] Me Too is really straightforward. Women would like to not be assaulted or harassed, really low bar for men to get over, but instead of that, you hear that women are dangerous or scary, you can't meet with them. Now it's 2022. And if you think that all of that has gone away, there's a study coming out tomorrow, the reset study of men in America in the workplace that's going to show us that men are still worried. 50% of men still say not really comfortable meeting alone with a woman, maybe mentoring women. So this is still a problem. Men are not engaging. So the big change has been that I've been pulled into broader conversations beyond just mentoring to how can men show up as allies broadly for women? What's it look like when I show up as an advocate and an ally for gender equity in the workplace? And mentoring is a piece of that.

Ryan: That's really interesting. Yeah, we want to dig into all those points today, I think specifically around kind of shifts that men can start making in the workplace. But before we get there, the topic for today is around how to design mentoring programs that break the glass ceiling. Specifically, we want to share some practical tips relevant to HR and learning and development managers, ERG administrators and people leaders at organizations. To start the conversation around that, can you give us kind of an overview? You've mentioned a lot of it already, but some of the specific barriers that women are facing in the workplace that make it hard for them to find mentors?

Dr. Brad Johnson: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, here's the problem. We could talk for the next two hours on gendered headwinds that women encounter. And so let me just start with four general headwinds that are established over and over across all the research. So I mean, these are just biases women encounter almost every day. One is to prove it again, bias, right? Men get promoted on potential. Women are constantly having to prove that they're competent and can do the job even if they've done it before. The maternal wall, right? The motherhood penalty. As a male, if you find out I'm a father on aggregate, I'm going to get a bump up, right? Oh, he's a busy dad and he's doing great work. Women get just the opposite, right? She's too busy, she's too distracted, and she’s not ready for this job. Then there is the tightrope around leadership. As a male, I can kind of lead with whatever style suits me, and I get a lot of leeway for that. Women are always walking a tightrope. If they lead in a more agentic, active, assertive way, they get labeled your favorite B word. If they lead in a more traditionally feminine way, more inclusive, more democratic, they get labeled incompetent. So they're always wrestling with that, how do I balance? And then finally, the double jeopardy. Women of color experience, all kinds of headwinds due to the intersection of race and gender. They have to work twice as hard to get half as far. So as a male, mentoring women, I need to self-educate on some of these gendered headwinds that I don't encounter as a privileged, in my case, white male.

Ryan: Mm-Hmm.

Dr. Brad Johnson: And then there are the biases that keep men from leaning into relationships with women. And I'll give you just a few. Number one, implicit biases about women and whether they're ready to lead. So there's this research called the Women are Wonderful Effect in Psychology, where men, if you ask them, what do you think about women guys say, oh, women are great. I love women. You know, they're nice, they're kind, they're caring, but what you don't hear is they're competent, they're ready to lead. You're not hearing any of that language that would lead me to mentor her, right. For a future promotion. So that's one. Anxiety, I think we've already kind of covered. Gosh, I don't want to lean into a relationship with a woman as a mentee when I'm afraid I'm going to step in it or say the wrong thing or make a mistake, or there's going to be rumor or gossip about our relationship. So, that's going on. And then, you know, there's the affinity bias. We all look for people who look like us and remind us of ourselves. So men are by and large, more likely to offer mentoring to other men, and certainly true with sponsorship. So, unless I have some self-awareness about that, it's really hard for me to overcome that. And I've got to do an audit of who I'm currently promoting and mentoring, and ask myself honestly, do they all look like me? And if that's the case, why is that? And what do I need to do to change that up?

Ryan: Mm-Hmm. I like some of those practical tips you had at the last points you were saying there. I think those are some big meaty challenges to get over, and they require a lot of organizational changes as well as individual mindset shifts. So those are good points. Question for you, do formal mentoring programs help women advance in the leadership roles or to combat some of those barriers you mentioned for men and women, should we be encouraging more informal mentorship? What's the solution there?

Dr. Brad Johnson: This is a million dollar question, Ryan, because there's so much here to unpack, and I'll try and do it really quickly. I mean, there actually is a got a lot of research on this. So when you ask prospective mentors and mentees, would you prefer a formal relationship where you're matched or would you prefer chemistry? Most people say chemistry, right? They say, oh, I don't want to go on a blind date when it comes to mentoring. That sounds awkward. It might not work. And so, no, let me just find somebody that I work well with. So both mentees and mentors say that. Here's the problem with that. When you rely on just chemistry, you have low rates of mentorship, and the first people to drop through the cracks tend to be women and people of color. They're simply less likely to have access to mentoring if you don't have a structure. So I'm a big fan of having some structure and, you know, your platform together is one that I think is a really great one. It doesn't force people into mentorships, but it offers an opportunity to reach out and have a connection. So I think some structure is really necessary. I've also seen, you know, if I as a HR director want to initiate a mentor program, and specifically, my agenda is to get more high talent women promoted and advanced in the company, which is a big interest these days. You know, we all have targets for gender balance and leadership, and a lot of companies are not achieving these. Well, one way to do this is to make sure women aren't falling through the cracks and getting ignored. So I see more companies launching mentoring programs for high talent women, specifically, and they're being very deliberate about it. This is a program for high talent women. We want to promote them, we want to keep them here. And I think that's brilliant, right? Have a very specific structure and frame it in an aspirational positive way and encourage high talent women to sign up or nominate them, make it a nomination. Hey, you've been identified as somebody we see as a future leader. When you frame it that way for a maybe a woman who's a prospective mentee, now suddenly it feels really positive, you know, versus, oh, this person I'm being paired with doesn't even want to be my mentor. But it's just a performative thing we have to do. So I love that. I love the positive deliberate framing. The other thing I'm seeing is, hey, it's not enough just to mentor women that you want to advance. And Cheryl Sandberg, right from Meta, Facebook says this, she says, Hey, if you're a guy mentoring a woman, let me just tell you it's not enough to be nice to her. You better be her raving fan. You better promote her. You better talk about her when she's not in the room. So let's not just get stuck with mentoring. Let's make sure we add sponsorship to the mix. And I think that's really smart. If you want to make sure mentoring leads to career advancement, make sure your mentors are also thinking about the sponsor piece. And the last thing I'll say here is, programs are great. You got to have a structure, but you have to have a mentoring culture as well. I think programs in a hostile, disengaged culture are not going to get you very far because these people who participate in this great mentorship relationship are going to come back to a culture that doesn't promote them or care about them. There's no follow up. So my question for a lot of HR leaders is what kind of mentoring culture do you have? Do you have a culture where people serve as mentors of the moment, meaning they just stop and have conversations and ask curious questions and show interest and care? If you don't have that kind of culture, I think you're always fighting an uphill battle here.

Ryan: Mm-Hmm. Those are some really good points. And I think a lot of the people that would be listening to this conversation are trying to build those mentoring cultures and get to that sweet spot where mentoring of the moment, as you said is the norm. Like, people are taking every opportunity to be a mentor. You touched on a lot of the points that I wanted to ask about around mentoring programs. You talked about high potential programs specifically for women. You mentioned Cheryl Sandberg, she's started, I think it's a non-profit or organization. Lean in.

Dr. Brad Johnson: Yes.

Ryan: And they push heavy on mentoring circles where it's kind of like an employee resource group just for women in like peer mentoring and senior to junior mentoring as well, but in a group setting. So there's a lot of different ways to run it. I think a lot of people starting mentoring programs now that might be listening to the conversation are wondering where do they get started. Should they go with that high potential kind of exclusive nom like nominating participants to join? Should they go that route at the start that's a little smaller? Should they go with a group mentoring program where it's like as lean in would call it mentoring circles? If you were to advise a company that wanted to start a mentoring program for women, where would you tell them to start?

Dr. Brad Johnson: Yeah. That, you know, again, there's probably not a right answer for every organization on this, and you'd have to tailor it a little bit, Ryan, but, you know, I think one concern I have, if I'm an HR director right now, and I'm a reasonably large organization or company, I worry about this idea that I have to boil the ocean right in the first year. I think you get yourself into trouble when you try and launch a massive program instead of doing it in an iterative kind of way. So, if it was me, I would love to kind of think about what's the biggest need right now around mentoring? And maybe let's just take the gender piece. Maybe it's, Hey, our attrition for high talent women is terrible. We're losing a lot of women. We're just not maintaining them. We work really hard to recruit them and then we lose them. And on exit interviews, we're finding out that there was very few developmental opportunities and mentoring. So maybe that's where I want to begin. And rather than try and off launch a big program for every woman in the company, how about kind of a nomination based selective program to really deliver on some very specific desired outcomes. Like, let's just go with retention and then maybe advancement. We're going to measure retention in the first year and we're going to measure advancement over the next five or six years. And let's just see how this is going. Let's roll it out annually, but let's do it in a very selective way. Let's make sure the mentors are carefully selected and well trained to increase our chances that we're going to have good outcomes. And let's try and get some wins under our belt. Let's try and, and show some outcomes, and then let's broaden it. Let's expand it. Let's grow it [laugh]. I think that's a better model than this all at once. We're going to roll it out. The other thing I just want to recommend is often the biggest pain point is we mentioned the attrition. I see that as one of the biggest pain points. We work really hard to recruit. We lose people in the first few years. One antidote to that is a mentor. You talked about lean in circles, and how about just small groups of brand new folks, you know, maybe cohorts of 10 people and they're all hired about the same time, maybe in the same department or whatever it is. Could we pair groups of new hires with some really accomplished senior mentors? I would love it if it was a male female leader of each group, because they can model really nice collaboration and allyship across gender. Could they meet with them once a month for the first year and just kind of find out what's on their mind, lend peer support, you know, talk through things they need to know as new employees provide encouragement and sponsorship. The beauty of that is your new employees are getting some very specific kind of mentoring support, and they're getting the peer relationships with people in their cohort. And then maybe at the end of that first year, those who want to move into a program like, you know, together or something like that. Now, we're better prepared to kind of put them in a match algorithm or, you know, give them a more specific mentor moving forward. But I really think that would lower your attrition concern.

Ryan: Mm-Hmm those are all very good points. I think your first point too about kind of the layered approach, like starting small with an exclusive high potential program and then building it up to include more kind of the lean in circle style of group mentorship and then doing group mentorship with new hires. I think a lot of the time admins come, or mentorship program managers come in and they want to start a bunch of different mentorship programs. They have so many ideas and, you know, you got to start somewhere and build it up. So, I think that is very good advice. Starting with a high potential program that's maybe a little smaller and then expanding it. We do need to broach the subject about including men in these mentorship programs. You've had a lot of good points already. I'm very curious to ask, however when you've mentioned it already, some of the fear that men may have about joining a mentorship program where they're going to mentor a woman. When these mentorship program managers are designing their programs, how do they attract and promote their program to get male leaders to join, to mentor more junior women? What advice would you give to those managers?

Dr. Brad Johnson: Yeah. You know, there's so many reasons for the why here about why we want to have men involved. I mean, in most organizations, let's be honest, as you move up the chain of command, you just don't find as many women. It's mostly men in senior leadership roles. And this is across professions and industries, it doesn't matter. So if you rely as a company on those few women who have made it to really senior leadership roles to mentor all the talented women that you're trying to recruit, it is a recipe for burnout for those senior women. And it's just not fair. Right? Men need to lean in here and be part of the solution. And by the way, this is not to say that senior women don't support junior women or are not perfectly capable. They do, they do a lot of this work already. They just can't do it all. So men need to be part of this. Now here's the problem. If I'm putting together a mentoring program, and I deliberately want to include senior men, which I think is really smart, don't think that everybody is equal when it comes to mentoring capacity. [Laugh]. And I would say this for both men and women, right? You know, not everyone's a great mentor. I can't tell you how much I travel and speak on the topic of mentoring, and I encounter people at trainings, and I just think to myself, I'd never want to see you mentor anyone ever [laugh]. They don't have interpersonal skills. They have no emotional intelligence. They maybe he's got real sexist bias going on, you know, I just don't trust you in a room with one of my high talent women. This is not going to go well. And I want to retain her. So I want to make sure the person I'm matching her with is going to be really helpful for her. So make sure you curate your list of mentors. You know, be thoughtful about who you're selecting. Even, you know, we talked about making it maybe selective for the mentees and that high talent mentor program. Well make it selective for mentors too, and make some reward contingent here. If people are leaning in as mentors and doing great work, which you should be collecting data about, by the way. You should reinforce them. You know, give them a load reduction, give them credit for the mentoring work they're doing so that this becomes desirable to participate in. I worry that too many mentor programs do this on the cheap, and they try and just make this an extracurricular for busy senior people. And of course, it's going to feel like an honors burden if this mentoring stuff is a nice, but it doesn't in any way relate to my annual evaluations or my promotion opportunities. You need to put some skin in the game as a corporate leader and say, Hey, we prioritize this enough that our best mentors, we're going to reward. And it could be financial, it could be with release time. It could be, there are all kinds of ways I could do that. I certainly should be giving shoutouts and public recognition, you know, for people who do this really well. So, be selective. Be careful with this. Yes, there's a lot of return for women when they have senior male mentors. They go farther, they make more money, and they get more promotions. This is not because men are better mentors. We often just hold more rank and power. We have more social capital that we can spend on promoting people. So yeah, it's probably good for women. And then let's don't forget, these relationships are great for men. We find that men who do this work across gender, they're better, they're more inclusive, and they have better relationship skills, higher EQ. And by the way, I don't check that at the end of the day, I get to take that home and makes me a better parent, better partner. There's a lot in this for men, especially in the year 2023 when the people getting promoted tend to be people with better EQ and inclusive leadership. So, let's not forget this is good for the men in your company too when they do this.

Ryan: Those are all very good points. And I think yeah, getting the incentives aligned and just kind of preaching the benefits for men of stepping in and stepping up to mentor women is very important. I want to shift gears and we want to respect your time here, so I know we're getting close again. But the last question I have just before we conclude is around not so much the people running mentoring programs, but the men that would be participating, if anyone's listening. If you were to speak directly to the men that we're going to participate or were considering participating, and they've heard all these benefits that you've now just shared, do they need to make any perspective shifts? Should they be consciously aware of something that may be an unconscious bias or as a man coming to you or say, I'm a man, to you and say, I'm going to participate in a mentorship program, and I'm asking you do you have any advice for me before I join this program and I take on say, a more junior female colleague? What advice would you give to someone like that?

Dr. Brad Johnson: Yeah. Well, don't pass go before you read Athena Rising. So the and fair enough. And the beauty of that is that's all wisdom from women, who have really appreciated men who have been excellent mentors. And so that's going to give you a window in on what your female colleagues are really going to appreciate in developmental relationships. And some of this may surprise you. I mean, number one, and may be most obvious, I want to show up in this relationship with a female mentee with some genuine cultural humility, gender humility, recognizing, I don't know her experience, demonstrating openness and curiosity. About her experience, I want to do some self-education. You know, let me read a little bit and watch podcasts on gender bias and what women are likely to encounter because I don't feel it as a male, so this is going to be new to me. So I want to do that homework first, so I'm better. But then with my mentee, I'd love to bring this into our relationship and just say, Hey, I was, you know, reading this book and hearing about some of these gendered headwinds. Has any of this happened to you? Would it be okay if I ask you about this? You know, that ask to ask. Let her decide if she wants to share that with you. She may not, but ask to ask, you know, just see if understanding her experience is going to inform how you show up in the relationship. So, I might begin with that kind of humility and awareness. I would also, you know, encourage men to recognize that some of the most powerful things seem simple, but they're not. And so, for an example, the number one thing women told us in our interviews for Athena Rising, when we asked them, what do you wish men would do more of in relationships, listening. And I never realized till I heard from woman after woman after woman that we men are not very good listeners. Apparently, we listened just long enough to fix her problem. Right? And so many women said, I don't need you to fix me or fix my problem. That's not why I'm coming to you. I'd love you to be a generous sounding board. You know, could you really understand where I want to go in my career? What the ideal looks like for me? Take the time to do that discernment and generous listening. And then, you know, once you get a glimpse of, of what that looks like, then come alongside and start being my vocal advocate and raving fan and encourage me and push me forward and look for opportunities and open your network. Right? Introduce me to key people. As a senior male that you have connections with, that could be really helpful in my career. But first of all, I've got to do the listening. And a final thing there, Ryan, is you've got to work at pushing back on your own assumptions as a male. You know, too often men see a junior woman and say, oh, well, she must want to do this. Or she, she would never want to do this because she's a woman. And we failed to check with her and actually find out a common one where men get hung up is on cloning women. You know, maybe, she must want to do exactly what I've done in my career and be just like me. And she's thinking to herself, no, I don't [laugh]. And unless I again, show up with a discernment and the humility, I'm going to get it wrong. And that's not going to be helpful for her. But those are just a couple recommendations.

Ryan: Those are great recommendations. I think you could re-listen to that, what all of what you just said several times over, and I think pull out something new every time. I think coming to a relationship with all those tips that you just shared would build an authentic mentoring relationship. And those are the kind of relationships that are not just career transforming, but kind of life changing. They can be. We've heard a lot of stories like that. So if you're a mentor listening to this take those, take those tips to heart. Dr. Johnson. We're almost at time here, but I'd like to end by asking and going back to address the people that are planning these mentorship programs to advance women. If you had to leave them with one word of advice or encouragement or anything, what would you share with them as they get ready to start their mentoring programs?

Dr. Brad Johnson: Yeah. And you're thinking of the HR.

Ryan: Yeah, the HR.

Dr. Brad Johnson: HR leader especially. Yeah. Well, so I guess this would be my thought. Before you go any farther in your current progress on moving toward any kind of program or structure for mentoring, think about again, the group you would most like to impact first, who is that? And if we just want to stick with a gender conversation today, Ryan, maybe you're really trying to work on retention, inclusion, and advancement of women. Start by doing some careful assessment of that group. And one of my favorite strategies would just be doing samples of maybe 10 or 12 women from different levels in the company, maybe especially junior women, and do what I call listening sessions. Just have closed door confidential listening sessions with women in this case, if that's my target audience. Find out what's on their mind. What are the headwinds, what's their current access to developmental relationships? What do they view the prospects for advancement in the organization? Really listen, see you understand where the pain points are right now. And I think that's really probably going to help inform how you structure the program. Another piece of this is just remember that representation alone. Doesn't mean you're, you're achieving your outcomes. So yeah, we may have more women but here's my question. Do they feel included? Is there a sense of belonging? Are you doing client engagement surveys so you can inform yourself about how women are actually experiencing the workplace? I think if you don't have that data, it's tough to think about how to really structure a program that's going to get you the biggest bang for your money.

Ryan: Mm-Hmm. That's great advice. I think it is not enough to just match a bunch of women together. It does require more involvement. That's great advice. Dr. Johnson, this has been a great conversation. Thank you for taking the time to share your wealth of experience with us. Undoubtedly, I think the mentorship program managers are going to get a ton out of this, and it's probably worth re-listening to a couple times as you commute or go on a walk. Where can people go to learn more about you, your work, and potentially connect?

Dr. Brad Johnson: Yep. Just my name, You can go to my webpage, and then I do a lot of work with my co-author for Athena Rising and Good Guys. And we're at, either one.

Ryan: Yeah. Wonderful. Thank you so much, Dr. Johnson. Have a great rest of your day.

Dr. Brad Johnson: Thanks, Ryan.