Since #MeToo, senior men are more reluctant to mentor junior women — a lose-lose situation for everyone. How can we stop this disturbing trend?
Fleur Britten - The Sunday Times
Finding a mentor is often about finding the right moment. One female lawyer found hers during the drive to court, where she got to travel by car with a senior colleague and discuss cases with him. But post #MeToo, the movement that finally gave women the permission to speak out about sexual harassment and assault, the invitations came to an abrupt halt — as did the mentorship.
This, sadly, is no exception, according to new research has found that 40% of male managers in the UK are uncomfortable participating in a common work activity with a woman, such as mentoring, working alone or socialising together (a 33% jump from how they felt before #MeToo). What’s more, senior-level men are twice as hesitant to spend time with junior women than with junior men in work activities such as one-on-one meetings, business dinners and travelling for work. Of the men surveyed, 25% admitted that it was because they felt nervous about how it would look.
The findings add insult to injury for women in the workplace. “It’s clear that sexual harassment needs to be addressed in our workplaces, but it’s not enough to not harass us,” says Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook and founder of LeanIn.org. She commissioned the research after hearing anecdotally that male leaders were concerned about being alone with younger women. “Sexual harassment is about power structures,” she continues, “and to make our organisations safer for everyone, we need more women in leadership. That can’t happen if men — who are the majority of senior leaders — are pulling back from mentoring and supporting women.”
Like it or not, a male leader can accelerate a woman’s success at work. “The research shows that if you have a male mentor, you make more money and have more promotions,” says W Brad Johnson, an American psychology professor and co-author of Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women. Before you hurl this article across the room, Johnson explains: “It’s not because men are better mentors.” The workplace was created by and for men, he says, “and that continues, so there are often not enough women in senior positions. In male-dominated professions, if you don’t have a male mentor, you’re not going to get mentored.”
So, can it be that #MeToo has actually undermined women’s progress? No, insists Stephen Woodford, chief executive of the Advertising Association and founder member of TimeTo, an initiative to stamp out sexual harassment in advertising. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant. This needs to be put into the public domain to get people talking about it.” #MeToo, he adds, has been “unequivocally good in surfacing these issues that have been there for ever. I’ve not heard from a single woman who says, ‘Let’s turn back the clock.’ ”
But #MeToo has had unintended consequence, namely that “a lot of really good guys are shying away from women”, says Rachel Thomas, co-founder and president of LeanIn.org (who adds that the movement is “very net positive”). “It’s not because they’re harassers or difficult people, but because it’s a knee-jerk response for them. By choosing to spend less time with women, they’re sidelining them, but they’re probably not internalising the impact of that.” It’s why releasing the data is so important, she adds.
In fact, these consequences come back to bite men, too, because everyone stands to benefit from female leadership. LeanIn.org cites research that shows when more women are in leadership, organisations tend to offer employees more generous policies and produce better business results. What’s more, Johnson adds, “when men have women in their networks, those men develop better communication skills, emotional intelligence and stronger networks. It’s good for guys, too — they just don’t realise it.”
Reluctant male syndrome is a recognisable phenomenon, according to Johnson, who identified it with his co-author David Smith. So the reluctant male is afraid of how a mentoring relationship with a young woman might be perceived: “They fear it might initiate gossip,” he says, “or that the woman might think that he was coming on to her. Or they might be concerned about what their partners would say.” Perhaps most disturbing is the “implicit biases” that men hold: “They question how much time they spend with a junior woman because they see her as a ticking time bomb” — it wouldn’t be deemed a good investment of their time if their mentee had children. Have they not heard of mother-of-two Sheryl Sandberg?
Feel free to be cynical about the reluctant male. “#MeToo provides a convenient excuse,” says the feminist writer Clementine Ford, whose latest book, Boys Will Be Boys: Power, Patriarchy and Toxic Masculinity, is out at the end of this month. “It’s basically saying, ‘It’s not because I’m sexist, it’s just too risky for me.’ ” The implication is that it’s women causing the problem; that “a young woman is either going to lie or overreact to something totally normal such as a man complimenting her or just touching her around the shoulder”. If these men genuinely don’t believe themselves to be a risk to young women, she adds, “then they shouldn’t be concerned about mentoring them”. As Sandberg puts it: “We need to raise the bar on what’s expected from men at work. Don’t harass us — but don’t ignore us either.”
So, how to navigate the bumpy path towards progress? “#MeToo has triggered a seismic and rapid shift of how society operates, and that causes uncertainty,” says Woodford, who this year featured in Management Today’s Agents of Change power list. What’s needed here is for men to be educated in modern masculinity, says Daniele Fiandaca, co-founder of Utopia, a culture change business for clients such as Coca-Cola and Universal Music. “Thanks to feminism, women have a much clearer sense of identity,” he says. “Men are lagging behind, and are confused. They’re scared of the change; they don’t know what it looks like and where it leaves them, so they are often resistant.”
The consensus is that communication is key. “We need to be open to discussing these uncomfortable issues,” says LeanIn.org’s Thomas. “We need men to be leaning in and spending more time with women, not less.” Fiandaca advises creating “safe spaces” for men to build confidence and knowledge in order to address their fears, so they can “understand that they’re not rational”. Fiandaca believes that inclusion needs to be a workplace’s overarching philosophy, which means ditching excluding behaviours. So long, then, to the slippery nipples (or indeed any kind of alcohol), footie “bantz” or a day on the golf course. Thank heavens for that.
Of course, progress will be slow and, says Woodford, “has to be part of a wider societal shift to equality”. How companies create inclusive and respectful cultures will be hard work, agrees Thomas, and “will require a lot of consistency and fortitude”. It is incumbent on all of us, she says, “to make sure we are getting more women into senior leadership, because that is a big part of the solution”. Ready when you are, boys.
How to mentor in the modern world
● Give equal access to men and women.
● Don’t create double standards — choose similar locations and timings for all.
● Choose breakfast over lunch or dinner, and avoid alcohol.
● Have several mentees for shorter times, not just one, and consider group mentoring.
● Be a good listener — listen for 80% of the time, talk for 20%. DOn’t bore them with your heroic tales. It’s not about you.
● Give concrete, achievable feedback that’s based on skills, not personal style.
● Check your intentions and don’t be a dick, as they say!