Written by Dotty Winters


Book review: Athena Rising

Dotty Winters was sent a book. It’s ruffled her feathers a bit.

Mentor at your peril: Athena, goddess of wisdom and war.

Mentor at your peril: Athena, goddess of wisdom and war.

Increasing gender equality improves economies and companies that have a more diverse workforce perform better than those who don’t. The evidence in this area is well established and relatively uncontroversial but progress in improving workplace gender equality has been slow.

The barriers that women face are also relatively well understood: ‘the motherhood tax’, gendered language, stereotyping, and a healthy dose of plain old sexism, from men and women alike.

Given that this is an issue that has implications for men and women, I am open to all suggestions, from all directions, on how we sort this shit out.

When I heard that there was a book that sought to encourage men to do more to fight this good fight, I was looking forward to reading it.

Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women by W Brad Johnson and David Smith (Routledge), seeks to tackle the knotty challenge of why women are underrepresented at the highest levels in organisations. They draw from a robust body of evidence as to the existence of this as an issue, and of the effectiveness of mentoring as a tool for career progression.

Let’s start with some disclaimers:

1. This book is written by men, for men, so I may not be the intended audience.

2. The authors acknowledge the challenges of writing a book about women – as two men – and work hard to present and challenge common misconceptions about women in the workplace.

3. The authors present and use evidence to support their arguments (although some of the ways they interpret this evidence is open to question).

4. I’m pretty sure Johnson and Smith are good guys who are genuinely motivated by trying to improve representation in the workplace. They are clearly conscious of the risks of misinterpretation of their intent and provide some great commentary on male privilege and on the economic business case for greater inclusion of women.

One of the challenges of this book is that it at times seems to fall into the bear traps the writers are so careful to caution men to avoid. For example, a section on the risks of benevolent sexism offers a great explanation, and some useful examples to help readers recognise and avoid this problem, yet in a number of places the book offers commentary which seems to sit within this category (such as a section which explains that one of the main barriers to men mentoring women is their wives).

“The advice here is, don’t wait for female colleagues to request your input, look for opportunities to teach women what they need to do to survive in your workplace. Coaching, without consent.”

Both men are linked to the Navy, and much of the language in the book, including chapter headings such as “Battle Intel” and phrases like “Gentlemen, this is a call to arms,” reinforce a rather macho and adversarial tone to the book which I’m not sure is helpful to its aims.

Some of the evidence on differences between men and women is a bit outdated and at times interpreted beyond application. So, while they are careful to point out that there are very few physical differences between men’s and women’s brains, they reference female traits in a way that seems to draw on some fairly outdated evolutionary psychology. (Incidentally, for a useful, and funny, analysis of some of the confirmation bias which undermines some evolutionary psychology I can’t recommend Sara Pascoe’s Animal enough).

Overall the result is a book which is a little tone-deaf in places. Take this passage:

“Take time to teach her what she needs to know to thrive in your workplace. Be particularly vigilant for opportunities to provide her with access to critically important information, intel that might otherwise be unavailable to her. Sheryl Sandberg observed that some high-potential women may have difficulty asking for help because they don’t want to appear stumped. So don’t wait for her to ask for guidance, Think something might be crucial for her to know? Have you identified a knowledge or skills deficit. Get busy teaching and coaching!”

That’s right, the advice here is, don’t wait for female colleagues to request your input, look for opportunities to teach women what they need to do to survive in your workplace. Coaching, without consent. Any woman who has had a man she works with carefully explain why they should behave more like them, even if the results they are delivering are equivalent or better, is likely to wince at this passage.

Athena Rising book coverFor me it brought back memories of a male manager who advised me I needed to socialise with colleagues more in order to support the project, despite my part of the project outperforming all the other projects and the fact that all opportunities to socialise with colleagues (presumably at the end of the 16-hour days I was working) were in stripclubs.

Overall my lasting impression was that this book is well meaning, but perhaps not facing in the right direction. Take, for example, an anecdote in which a mentor, Charles, notices that a woman in his organisation fails to get the professional treatment she deserves because men in the room were “brazenly staring at her cleavage”.

Realising that this is unacceptable behaviour, Charles discusses the situation with a senior colleague and resolves to have a conversation with the woman concerned about how her attractiveness is holding her back and she needs to be more aware of it.

I can’t help thinking that a more effective route to representation of women and a better-run organisation would have been immediate disciplinary action against an member of the team who doesn’t listen to a colleague, because boobs.


Enjoyed this? Help Standard Issue keep going by joining our gang. Click here to find out how.

  • googleplus
  • linkedin
  • rss
  • pinterest

Written by Dotty Winters

Nascent stand-up, fan of fancy words, purveyor of occasional wrongness, haphazard but enthusiastic parent, science-fan, apprentice-feminist.