LAWRENCE – The US Army has stated that it views mentoring as a key way not only to help the most qualified individuals advance in their military careers, but also to fill gaps in the diversity of their leadership. New research from the University of Kansas shows that men and women in the Army’s special operations departments view mentorship overwhelmingly positively, but men see it as a way to advance, while women see it as a way to survive in a male-dominated organization.
The Army, like many branches of public service, strongly promotes meritocracy as a way for the most deserving to advance. While mentoring can help achieve this, the KU study found that it is not currently seen as a way for everyone to progress, and the relational nature of the practice is at the core of the discrepancy.
“Career advancement and just surviving are two very different goals,” said Shannon Portillo, professor of public affairs and administration and associate dean of academic affairs at KU’s Edwards campus, of the gendered goals of Army mentorship. “Mentoring is not a standard program. It fulfills different goals for different people. When it comes to bridging diversity gaps at the top of organizations, as the Army has said it wants to do, it doesn’t necessarily do it. It may only help women survive.”
Portillo, Amy Smith of the University of Massachusetts at Boston, and Alesha Doan, professor of public affairs and administration and women, gender and sexuality studies at KU, co-wrote a paper based on a study in which they conducted surveys with approximately 1,200 Army specialists have conducted operational staff and focus groups with 198 of them. “Up the Chain: Gendered Mentoring in the US Army” was published in the journal Review of Public Personnel Administration.
The authors studied the army—one of the largest but least-researched public sector organizations—to better understand its slow integration of women into diverse roles. Portillo and Doan recently wrote the book “Organizational Oblivion: Entrenched Resistance to Gender Integration in the Military”, who documented how ingrained gender stereotypes prevented women from moving forward and taking on roles previously denied to them. For the current study, they were examining the value of mentoring when the results revealed drastically different views on such roles.
Men in the focus groups spoke positively about their experiences of mentoring and how it helped them advance in their careers. But they also revealed their mentors, who were often linked to them not because their leadership potential was recognized, but because they had things in common, including gender, race and origins from similar geographic areas. Women revealed their experiences with mentors who helped them navigate life as a woman in a male-dominated organization and find ways to stay in the army rather than drop out or discuss how their careers could advance.
“Although mentoring gives women the skills to remain in a male-dominated profession, it does not provide them with the same tools for advancement that their male counterparts receive. To level the playing field in these organizations, leaders need to structure more robust mentoring programs that provide women with both support (ie retention) and professional development opportunities (ie advancement),” Doan said.
The authors wrote that the results were not necessarily intentional, as men were genuinely surprised that women’s experiences were so different from their own. And while discouraging women from leaving the army is positive, it falls nowhere near the stated goal of helping men succeed and women just surviving, helping qualified candidates advance, or differences in diversity in to fix the leadership.
“Mentoring, as it is practiced, helps men in particular. Mentoring is good and important for what it does for both men and women in the organization, but our research shows we can improve it to meet Army goals,” Portillo said. “It’s a benevolent approach to mentorship that we’ve seen, but it still excludes those who haven’t always had access.”
The authors said that the gendered experiences of mentorship in the army reflect gendered experiences of people in similar male-dominated organizations such as police and firefighters. However, by acknowledging the current gap in the experiences of men and women, the Army could address the problem by improving formal mentoring programs, better training mentors, ensuring that the program meets stated career progression goals for all, and striving to Matching mentors with worthy candidates, not just those matching their own gender or background. The fact that the Army has stated that it sees mentoring as a way to fill diversity gaps in leadership is a positive sign, the authors said. But currently, men in the Army see mentoring as a path to advancement, aided by a mentor’s “encouragement, recommendations, introductions and insider knowledge,” the authors wrote, while “mentoring provided women with skills that would help them navigate the organization.” another individual.”
Image: Members of the 1st Armored Division’s Special Troops Battalion plot their positions on a map. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.