by Denise Berger
I often find myself watching my daughter with my husband and admiring the respect and gratitude she has towards her father and, just as importantly, how much he shows her in return. I appreciate that she is blessed with such a hero - her knight, her Superman, and her mentor. Now, I can picture some of you starting to get your back up, a little tension building in your shoulders. The image of a man being in such a position of grandeur (and therefore, by default, a woman being inferior) is an unpopular snapshot today, so allow me to clarify: we can discuss the loving relationships we women have with our daughters too, and for that matter, our female colleagues and friends; we can acknowledge our strengths as women –both mentally and physically; we can enumerate our accomplishments, especially in the traditional male-dominated areas like aerospace, finance, sports; and we can tout our independence. We can also cover the sorry statistics about women’s continuous and tenuous journey towards equality, of the imbalance in house/childcare between men and women, and the lack of parity on so many levels, but for today’s purposes, I am focusing on our relationship with men – the upside.
In Audition, Barbara Walters reminds the reader of a difficult point in her career: when she moved from NBC’s Today show, after 15 years, to take a position as co-anchor of ABC Evening News with Harry Reasoner, a man not overly receptive to sharing the stage with a woman. In the early days, Barbara overcompensated for the awkwardness between them by making jokes at her own expense and lightening up the rapport on-camera. (Note: Harry did nothing to change his demeanor for the overall good of the show.) She was fighting an uphill battle as even the public was not ready for her softer style of covering topics and interviewing people. After a period of feeling dejected she received a note in the mail that uplifted her spirits and pushed her to go on. “It said simply, ‘Don’t let the bastards get you down,’ and was signed ‘John Wayne’.”
I dare say that, while this note of encouragement could be effective coming from a fellow woman, it happened to be even more powerful coming from a man because it was about giving her strength in the face of other not-so-heroic male counterparts. While a hero these days can be any person who inspires us to persevere, someone who encourages us to go beyond our own perceptions of our capabilities, it is also the man who steps outside of societal boundaries – or the perceived male comfort zone - to stand behind a woman’s pursuit of her dreams, success, and performance. It is exactly this gender-specific hero who has confidence, emotional intelligence and (yes, I will go so far as to say) manners to stand up for, support and advocate a woman’s achievements because he is secure in his own talents to exalt another person.
And, yes, these mentoring relationships can and do exist cross-gender, platonically. With very few women at the top, and so many women who off-ramped and now are looking to re-enter the workforce, we would be short-sighted to shun men as role models and mentors. There are countless representations of information that are better received coming from a man (and yes, there are others that are better from a woman). One of my own personal favorites: I recall one of my most treasured male mentors congratulating me after a tough presentation, showering me with compliments and boosting my insecure ego. Then, he turned to me and said, “but don’t giggle so much after you make a joke; let it hang there for the audience.”
My daughter is fortunate that she may not have to look very far to find her male support system, between my husband and her older brother. For the rest of us, I encourage everyone to build good relationships with those of the male persuasion, to offer up the respect to them that we in turn expect, and choose wisely. The “trusted advisor” distinction should be a coveted role, after all, and the men who fulfill it have greater power in the development of our society, the work culture and our evolution than they might ever know. It is important that these connections come naturally and are cultivated genuinely. I, for one, have female friends - like sisters to me - and women whom I aspire to be like in their intelligence, grace and success. But I have also found through the years men who have challenged me to achieve my personal best, treated me as an equal (even when we were not in my eyes), respected my talents and became my friends and counsel. They carried my spirit for me when I was down and they became role models to me because of their integrity, business acumen and friendship. In short, they are my heroes.