Mentoring between a younger female protégé and a more seasoned male mentor could be seen as inherently problematic. After all, the hierarchies of power in such a relationship are so ingrained it is impossible to miss them. Yet, with the #MeToo movement and recent recognition of sexual harassment as something society will no longer tolerate, it looks like we may finally have arrived at an era where women can be mentored like the male counterparts without the fear of sexual harassment. This is good news for gender diversity and women’s mentoring programs, right?
An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that in light of the recent media coverage of high-profile sexual harassment, 49 percent of men are now reconsidering how they interact with women. While this should mean a more inclusive environment where mentoring can flourish, there seems to be an undercurrent of fear for many men as they look to navigate work relationships post-#MeToo. This is particularly true of the over-50 age group, where richly experienced executive-level mentors are most prevalent.
During National Mentoring Month, there has been some great, well-intended advice on the topic of men mentoring women. Much of it is aimed at men, to help them prevent accusations of harassment. This advice includes carefully considering where the mentoring takes place – perhaps in the office instead of at a bar or in a conference room rather than over coffee. While this advice is sound, it does not address the fact that for mentoring to work, the relationship needs to be built on a foundation of trust. If there is a fundamental uneasiness on the part of the mentor or the protégé, the relationship is not going to be flourish.
Crucial networking often happens outside the workplace at dinners, lunches and sporting events. But men are now reporting that they are so worried about being accused of harassment that they feel uncomfortable inviting women to these types of events. Some are even refusing to have closed-door meetings with female colleagues without someone else present. Mitch Thompson, a passionate advocate for mentoring women, notes the rise of these kinds of actions with concern: “To change a well-intended thing, such as mentoring, on the basis of a cohort of not well intended individuals is folly. We need to be proactively managing the perceptions of both male mentors and their protégés to ensure women continue to get access to the support and enablement mechanisms for success.”
According to studies in the U.S. and Europe , approximately two to six percent of sexual violence accusations are false, around the same rates of false accusations of bullying. Yet we do not see reports of men refusing to mentor or have closed-door meetings with other men for fear of being falsely accused of bullying. So why are so many men worried about being falsely accused of sexual harassment? I believe that it’s because throughout history, we have been conditioned to believe that women are vengeful. Since Eve was said to tempt Adam with the apple or Delilah to cut off Sampson’s hair, such stories have made an impression on our collective psyche, often without our consciously recognizing it.
In order for workplaces to thrive, we need to bring out this unspoken assumption and examine it for what it is: a myth. The idea that women are “out to get” men is as true as saying men are out to bring men down – there may be a small percentage of individuals for whom this is true, but most people want to do a good job. Sadly, this unexamined belief is depriving women of good mentors, purely because they are women and in spite of the many proactive, brilliant men who would normally be keen to support talent.
Women hold only 12 percent of executive roles in the U.K. and 16 percent in the U.S. If companies were to rely solely on senior women as mentors for other women, there simply would not be enough mentors to go around. Yet we know that gender diversity at the top supports better performance. In the report “Why Diversity Matters,” McKinsey & Company saw a correlation between women on the senior executive team and earnings before interest and tax (EBIT), with a 3.5 percent uplift in EBIT for every 10 percent increase in gender diversity.
We find ourselves in a place where 56 percent of working women report having been sexual harassed, with perhaps 6 percent of claims being false. Safeguarding against the 6 percent by not mentoring women does not deal with the bigger issue or the root cause. Women continue to come to work and meet and engage with male colleagues despite a small group of predatory men. Imagine if the tables were turned: What would happen if women started to refuse to hold a closed-door meeting or work with more than two males at once?
As National Mentoring Month draws to a close, let’s go back to basics, of building mutually beneficial, trust-based relationships that help both the mentor and the protégé develop and grow. After all, the majority of us are all just people who want to help our organizations succeed. Let’s not let gender get in the way. We are hyper-aware of these issues in the wake of #MeToo, but the extreme reactions have swung too far to one side of the pendulum and created alarm where it may not be needed. I hope that we can all work together to ensure it swings back to the middle sooner rather than later.