Feminist in the Pentagon, Part 1

Julia Gitis is on assignment at the Department of Defense.

“Women make crappy mentors.” Will our generation prove otherwise?

“Women make crappy mentors.” These four deflating words were said to me by Rose*, a senior policy advisor at the Pentagon. For two and a half months, I had tried repeatedly to schedule a meeting with her, until finally her assistant squeezed me into her schedule. When we met for half an hour in Rose’s mahogany office, the conversation took an odd turn.

Our meeting was going well as we discussed the projects we were working on. Then I mentioned that another senior officer had recommended I meet with her. I mentioned his name just to see if she would react positively to the connection. Instead, Rose reacted as if he were indirectly pressuring her to offer me help or guidance. She said, “You’re the third young woman he has sent my way.”

I was not sure what she was implying, until she explained her thoughts on women as mentors. Rose said, “Women in my generation had to fight tooth and nail to be successful. Now they don’t want to extend a hand to younger women like you. They think ‘If I had to fight for it, so should they.’” I could not tell whether this was her way of saying she did not want to mentor me or anyone else, but by the end of the conversation I concluded that it was, indeed.

Rose gave me the name of a networking organization for women working in national security, and she suggested I join. I appreciated the suggestion and wrote it down in my notebook, and followed up by asking her, “So, do you ever attend this organization’s events?” She said “No, I attended a few, but this organization is for women like you, not for women like me.” She went on to say, “Networking organizations frequently suffer because successful older women don’t have time or don’t make the effort to attend their events, which makes the organizations less useful for aspiring women leaders like you.” She acknowledged the old boys club in national security, noting that it was especially unfortunate that women in our field were reticent about networking with each other.

I’m surprised when I meet people in formal settings who are upfront about controversial qualities. In our first brief meeting, however, Rose openly discussed her hesitance toward mentoring young women and her decision not to participate in a women’s networking organization. I know that today there are many women and organizations committed to mentoring younger women, including in the field of national defense. Though I have seen and experienced exceptions to Rose’s viewpoint, I left our meeting seeing her words as a challenge for my generation.

Women mentoring women, particularly in fields where they are underrepresented, can affect not only recruitment and retention, but also women’s career paths and the success of entire organizations. Rose’s perspective was a complex one, fed by decades of work experience, choices, and self reflection. Her words saddened me, but she left me with a question: “Will your generation be different?” I offer that question as a challenge to young professional women today.

*Name changed to protect individual’s privacy.

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