Feminist in the Pentagon, Part 1

Originally posted in Community Blog

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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8 Comments

  1. Posted May 19, 2011 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    That is a really interesting interaction you had with this woman. It sucks that she (and by her suggestion many other women) doesn’t want to mentor younger women. Though, in my experience this attitude of wanting the younger people to work as hard, or suffer as much, is pretty common. As an athlete, I found this attitude very prevalent among coaches. Wanting to make the players suffer with conditioning drills like they suffered. This attitude also seems to be a common one when it comes to hazing. Even in academia, there are some professors who want grad students to suffer like they did as grad students. All very crappy, but in my experience, its not unique.

    Hopefully you are able to find good mentors, as a good mentor makes everything a lot nicer for anyone.

  2. Posted May 19, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    I am a student in mathematics, and I have never experienced this kind of reaction from successful high level women in math. I’m not sure if this is just because I have been lucky or because academic mathematics is different. Although most of my mentors have been male, I’ve had pretty good experiences with high level women encouraging and helping younger women starting out.

  3. Posted May 19, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    Well, at least she was honest about it all? >_< I just can't comprehend what purpose the "you have to suffer as I suffered" mentality serves, other than to shore up the ego of the experienced party and reassure them that they suffered for a reason. I personally ascribe to the "I suffered so you don't have to; for the love of all that's holy, please learn from my mistakes!" school, and I think that if more people took this track in business and academia, we'd spend a lot less time rehashing the same tired ground.

  4. Posted May 19, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    I’ve also encountered this anti-mentoring sentiment. I’m a woman engineer in the automotive industry. There are not many women in the engineering departments and those I’ve encountered have not had much interest in taking time out to help those down the food chain.

    In my experience the main deterrant to mentoring isn’t so much that they want us to go through the same painful initiation, but that the more senior women still see themselves as fighting tooth and nail to get ahead. They don’t feel they have the time or political capital or wisdom to help others. No matter how high they’ve climbed they still feel like they’re on shaky ground, they’re putting in long hours and trying to impress the right people. Lunch with other women doesn’t fit into the image they are trying to maintain.

    So basically with no one to help the mid-level women from above, the mid-level women can’t help the entry-level women below. It’s a vicious circle really, and it’s reinforced by the anti-woman environment in the office. But there’s definitely room for a few young women to break the cycle. I’ve only been working 3 years and my position is still “non-manager” but I am in a position to hire and mentor co-op students from our local university and hopefully bring more women into manufacturing. It only takes a little effort and willingness to answer questions (even when the answer is, “I have no idea. I struggle with that.”) to make life much easier for a woman just starting out.

  5. Posted May 19, 2011 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    This is very saddening and something I myself experienced in a rather heartbreaking way, but the onus of responsibility does not necessarily lie with our generation of women specifically but with our generation in general. The big problem here that I see is that that particular man decided to send all these women to Rose because they’re all women as if that’s the only thing that matters. He is correct in assuming no man can understand the female experience just as no woman can understand the male experience, but to simply shuffle all the girls off to the one woman available was irresponsible on his part. Why wasn’t he mentoring them? Why didn’t he also give them suggestions for male mentors?

    The experience in many different fields for women is one of exclusion and as such its nice to have another woman there to compare notes with after being repeatedly ignored, however to switch that from exclusion to inclusion, the men have to be involved mentoring and being mentored by women. It’s not like we speak different languages. There are male feminists out there and … I frankly see no excuse for anyone to not be a feminist.

  6. Posted May 19, 2011 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    I also work in defense. I have encountered women such as Rose, but my usual experience is to the contrary, especially within my technical field within defense. On a regular basis, I’m given advice from women in senior technical positions on how to work around the good ol’ boy networks (without talking about golf), how to negotiate for a raise, etc.
    So, the questions that occur to me after reading this are: why did this male senior officer make the recommendation? Without knowing the full details of the interactions, I would wonder if Rose didn’t feel singled out by her male colleague as the only one suitable for addressing the professional development needs of a young professional *because* she’s a woman (i.e. Tokenism). I’m not saying her reactions aren’t discouraging… just that there might be more to the story than the generalization she creates for her generation.

  7. Posted May 19, 2011 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

    This is a tough issue. Ideally, yes, successful women would be mentoring other women. That said, the demographic changes that are happening mean that the percentage of women entering is much higher than the percentage of successful women who are there. And so being asked to mentor every young woman who comes in can be draining. And sometimes there’s not a good fit. “Oh, you two will get along perfectly. Because you’re both women, and you shouldn’t try to talk to him, because he may be senior, but he’s a man.”

    Also, while networking with other women is terrific, there aren’t any other women in engineering at my company, and there are very few in my industry. So by spending my limited time working with groups that contain only women, I end up hurting my own career, because I don’t get to network with people who are doing the same thing I am.

    Yes. It’s important to mentor those coming in, and yes it’s important to help other women. And everyone could do better. But the costs can be significant, and being a woman is rarely someone’s only contribution.

  8. Posted May 20, 2011 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for posting this; it makes me feel better about all the rebuffs I’ve gotten from older women in various jobs.

    I appreciate the risks for them, and the scars they bear from fighting their way in. And even that they could have had some earlier attempts at mentoring blow up in their faces. I think a tough, me-first attitude isn’t surprising when you’ve had to defend yourself all the time, and the resentment they might feel when now they’re expected to welcome in the new girls, not to mention the worry that the new girls might be after their jobs. It’s a problem. Scarcity creates distrust. High level women’s jobs are still scarce.

    Maybe a better approach than asking for more of their time and resources might be to invite them to just talk about their experiences, first. What did the face and how did they deal with it? What did they hate when they started that has gotten better, and what hasn’t? Maybe they need us to reach out to them before they can reciprocate.

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