David Smith, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Sociology in the National Security Affairs Department at the United States Naval War College. His research focuses on gender, work, and family issues, including dual-career families, military families, women in the military, and retention of women. Dr. Smith is the author of numerous journal articles and book chapters- many on the topic of gender in the workplace. A former Navy pilot, Dr. Smith led diverse organizations of women and men, culminating in command of a squadron in combat and flew more than 3,000 hours over 19 years, including combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
What follows here are snippets from our conversation with David - edited for length and clarity - make sure you listen to the entire conversation for the great insight! To know more about the work of David and his books, please visit his website here.
Agnes Uhereczky: How did your two passions - the military and sociology - come together?
David Smith: Thank you so much for having me on the podcast, it is great to be with you and your listeners today and get the chance to talk a little bit about our work and why this is important in business and industry. As you heard, I started as a navy pilot, but let me just back up a little bit further to give you a little background and where my motivation comes from for a lot of the work that we currently do. I started as a student at the naval academy back in the mid-80s. This experience was my first introduction to seeing a profession that is traditionally male-dominated, where women in many ways were treated as second class citizens. We also observed a general integration in a variety of different settings. While I think that there is a lot of great structure in terms of policy and regulation, there was not a lot of conversation along the way about changing the demographics. The people were going to somehow fundamentally change the culture in the way we do business and the way we interact with each other in the workplace. And that was never really addressed as we went through that throughout my career.
Much later in my career, after 20 years of being in the military, I went into becoming an academic, a military professor at the naval academy in Minneapolis. At my Ph.D. program in sociology, I had the opportunity to explore some of these issues academically, gender inequality, and inequities in professions and at the workplace. For me, I wanted to start with the military first and foremost because that is where my experience was, I also share - full disclosure - with my wife, who is a retired naval officer. I had a chance to listen to and observe her experiences; some of those shaped my background and understanding of gender in the military.
If you are going to study gender in the military - and indeed around integrating work and family experiences for women - then you need to study dual-career couples in particular because of the vast majority of military women who are married and married to another service member. This is why I started my research on dual-career couples and looking at not just the military but other professional women and men out there. I looked at how both the structure of the workplace and social influences and culture influences, influence decision making and outcomes that are related to retention, attrition, advancement, which lead to some of these inequities we find in the workplace. So that's how we got started.
Agnes Uhereczky: What led you to write the book, Athena Rising?
David Smith: I was at the naval academy for about eight years. I taught with my good friend and colleague, Dr. Brad Johnson, who is a prior navy psychologist. He taught at the naval academy for the last twenty-plus years as a civilian, and his research over the decades has focused almost exclusively around mentoring relationships and what makes a good mentoring relationship. It turned out that we had an overlapping interest in understanding - in particular, if we think about professional development within professions - that the access to resources like mentoring and sponsoring (or coaching could be brought into that conversation as well) was not equal. It was not the same for different people. And in particular, from a gender perspective, the women were not getting the same access to resources that men were.
And that included, in particular, that we don't engage men into this conversation about why they need to be part of the solution.
There is this missing ingredient as we think about the solution in the workplace that we often focus on. We look at women's advancement and retention in particular as a women's issue, women's leadership issue, so we focus a lot of resources on women. Still, in many cases, part of that solution has needs and has to be men. So we sat out, in particular, to focus and start on looking at cross-gender mentoring relationships. We wanted to know what worked well, what did not work well, what were the aspects that hold people back from getting the most out of those relationships, why in particular men are more reluctant to enter into a mentoring relationship with a junior woman. That is where we began to do the research and Athena Rising, distilled all the social science, behavior science evidence that relates to cross-gender relations in the workplace.
It was kind of funny, we were talking to our female colleagues about the book, and what we were writing about - mentoring relation of women at the workplace. They looked at us and said, "wait a minute, you realize that you are two dudes writing about mentoring relations of women in the workplace". To which we responded, "yeah, we get that," but it was essential to reinforce the idea that women's voices needed to be reflected in work. So we had the great fortune to interview a lot of really high-powered women across industries and professions. We talked about what women appreciated the most in the mentoring relationship they had with a man. We looked into what were the attributes, the skillsets, the benefits, the outcomes that they found to be most rewarding, and in some cases, what did not work so well and what they could have done more or less of to make it better.
Then we had the opportunity to interview the male mentors in most of the cases and talk to them about those relationships and what they learned, what they did see as best practices, and what worked well in a cross-gender mentoring relationship.
Agnes Uhereczky: Why is it so critical for women to also have senior male sponsors?
David Smith: It is a great question. The over mentoring of women and under sponsoring, it gets that the quality and the functions people get within their mentoring relationships, and so in particular, as I mentioned before, advocacy and sponsorship in great mentoring relationships is a part of it. It is inherent in that. It is the part though that women don't get. We find in research, over and over again, that if women are in a mentoring relationship with senior men they often do not get the advocacy component. And this could be due to the affinity bias, or it could be to a reluctance to push one forward. There is a whole list of reasons why they are not getting it, but they are not. The bottom line is that at most professions today, especially those that are male-dominated - tech, finance, and in particular, the military - the numbers just don't work out.
Men hold the vast majority of the senior positions, so if you are doing a great job in recruiting women into your profession - which, in most cases, we do - who is going to mentor these women.
You can not expect all the handful of senior women to mentor this growing population of talented junior women because they just don't have enough time in the day. A part of it is just a pure numbers game that men have to be doing some of this as well. The other, again, is that men tend to be the ones more likely to be in those positions of power and influence. So, they are the ones who can do the advocacy, the sponsoring of these women. They can do the mentoring too, but most importantly, they have the availability to share that social capital again to be able to push these women forward and make sure that they are being advanced and retained in the same way as talented men.