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What If More Men Mentored Women into Top Leadership Roles

By Billie Williamson

With all the progress in women’s advancement over the years, there are still only 10 female CEOs in the Fortune 500 – less than three percent. These amazing women, such as Indra Noovi of PepsiCo, Patricia Woertz of Archer Daniels Midland, and Margaret Whitman of Ebay have beaten all the odds and made it to the very top.

When you look at the numbers, there just aren’t enough women in top corporate positions to mentor other women toward reaching those same positions. So, who is really going to make gender equity a reality? The answer: Men.

What if men became change agents with other men? What if more male leaders gave their rising female managers the most visible opportunities, put them on the most complex accounts or projects, and coached them to success in those roles? Imagine how quickly women could advance within an organization if the top men were strategically pulling for them.

It’s not that men want women to fail, rather, most men want women to be very successful. Men often just need some coaching so that they know how to mentor their female employees and help them build the relationships and skills they need to succeed in the most demanding leadership positions. Sometimes men, and women for that matter, can make assumptions about other women. Assumptions such as, “She has small children, she’d never want to transfer.” We need to coach men to ask the question, rather than making assumptions around what a woman will or won’t do to advance her career.

In my experience, men want to know how to work better with women. For example, they really want to know how to best handle the news that one of their star employees is having a baby. These are critical conversations that can either make or break the confidence of a rising female within an organization. A man who provides positive feedback and helps a woman navigate her options will go a long way in retaining that woman.

I believe that the road to gender equity is a two-way street however. In addition to receiving coaching and mentoring by men, women executives need to understand the importance of building relationships throughout their careers at all levels within their organization. Too often, women do not realize the benefits of having these relationships already in place when they are being considered for a leadership promotion.

At Ernst & Young, as part of our gender equity efforts, we have sought the input of women for more than 25 years but we had not spent significant time speaking to our men about the same issues. This past year, we brought in a male executive coach – someone who knows our firm’s culture and would make our men feel at ease. He traveled across the U.S. and Canada, holding focus groups with male partner/principals and senior managers to get honest feedback about how men felt about coaching and mentoring women.

There were challenges identified as a result of the focus groups: Some men were struggling to find the skills that would enable them to coach women toward leadership. Further, men were not sure that they understood how a woman could be a committed professional, a great wife, and a wonderful mother – this seemed like a very demanding situation! We used those dilemmas at our subsequent Women’s Leadership Conference to create workshop scenarios for senior men and women to address and attempt to resolve together.

Here are some of the tips that Ernst & Young women have offered to our male partners:

Engage in the dialogue with women – ask questions, provide honest feedback, guidance and tips. Don’t sugarcoat it – if there is something a woman, or man, needs to do to improve, it’s important to be candid and explain what actions should be taken.

Place women in key roles – understand and appreciate the richness that diversity of thought and a woman’s leadership style can bring to your project, client, or team.

Be willing to be a mentor – help women come up with good solutions to tough situations with clients or colleagues and encourage them to seek advancement opportunities in their career.

The men at Ernst & Young have been very receptive to this advice. Fortunately, we have a Chairman and CEO that understands the importance of gender equity and who sets the tone at the top of our organization. Although at times it might seem slow, real progress is being made in moving women into leadership roles within other organizations in corporate America as well – but it’s going to take many more years to see equity at the top. Until that happens, we have to understand the critical role men play in women’s advancement.

About the author

Billie Williamson is the Americas Director of Gender Equity and Flexibility Strategy Partner at Ernst & Young, LLP.