Men Mentoring Junior Women in the #Metoo Era
Updated: Apr 4, 2019
1 in 6 male managers now hesitates to mentor a woman (Leanin.org, 2018). Recently, while giving a talk, a male manager asked me, “You do know that the #metoo movement is dividing people in the workplace, right? Men will no longer want to be alone with a woman, for fear of getting in trouble.”
“You do know that the #metoo movement is dividing people in the workplace, right? Men will no longer want to be alone with a woman, for fear of getting in trouble.”
Figuring out how to mentor junior women is critical: if you aren’t mentoring half of your employees, you and your company are going to have a real problem. And, women need male mentors: “When women are mentored by men, they make more money, receive more promotions, and report greater satisfaction with their career trajectories” (Harvard Business Review, 2018).
Based on the latest research on women in the workplace, and backed up by dozens of conversations with male executives and female rising stars, here are my specific answers to some common questions about how to mentor women in the current #metoo era. (If you want related advice on the specifics of avoiding sexual harassment in the workplace, visit my companion piece, "For the Good Guys: Men and women at work in the #metoo era.”)
Take the advice that resonates. Leave the rest. Like many things, you’re working with a spectrum of risk here - and my advice is meant to help you reduce that risk. You need t decide the degree to which you are comfortable.
How do I make sure mentoring doesn’t veer into "something more"?
You see a rising star who happens to be female and you want to help her develop her skills and climb the ladder. Or, maybe mentoring women is a new company initiative. Maybe a junior woman has asked you to be their mentor.
To maintain professional vibes in both directions, consider this: mentoring relationships are meant to be mutually beneficial.
She clearly gets business mentoring from you. But, what you’re getting from her can be less obvious.
To find something cool (& non-sexual) that you’ll get from mentoring her, ask yourself: does she have some really great insights about an interest you share? Is she always in the know about the best new movies or books? Is she a wiz about the city you’re in? Can she help you better understand a younger consumer audience?
As funny as this may sound at first blush, I heard this warning from multiple male executives: if you’re clear what you’re getting from the relationship, you’re are less likely to mistakenly slip into trying to get flirtation or romance back as your reward.
So, can I mentor her over drinks?
Maybe you are used to mentoring your male rising stars a nearby bar that’s a firm favorite or prefer the ambiance of the Club.
You’re the best one to decide the right, of course, but since you want to greatly reduce confusion, grey-area vibes, and set-ups for making bad decisions, my best recommendation is no. Especially not one-on-one. And especially not early on in your mentoring relationship.
This answer makes good sense, but if you still need more, here it is in an perfectly named study, “the prevalence of male heavy drinking, the embeddedness of permissive workplace drinking norms, and the gender harassment of female coworkers” to get you back on course (Cornell, 2004).
What if she suggests “grabbing drinks sometime”?
Set expectations around the value of your time and the formality of your meetings for all of your mentees. If a mentee asks you to "grab drinks sometime" or puts an after-hours meeting on your calendar with no description of what it's for, ask for an agenda and to prepare some questions ahead of time that they want to discuss in your meeting-- you'll both benefit.
Also, if 5 o’clock is the only time you both have free, you might want to drink a mocktail even if she orders a whiskey. And, always use business language to describe any meeting: “Mentoring session with T. Smith” not “Drinks with Tricia!”
What if dinner is the only option?
If you do decide to dine with a female colleague - sometimes it’s the only option in a hectic industry - it can be incredibly awkward if the restaurant staff assumes you're a couple.
The good news is: it doesn't take much to signal to them that your table is a business meeting. Take a notebook or folder and keep it on the table. You probably should be taking some notes anyway if you're actually going to mentor somebody seriously. Nobody does that on a date.
Also, bonus points for sticking to non-alcoholic drinks.
Does #metoo change how I mentor young men?
In short, yes. Spooked about mentoring women in the #metoo era, some men have gone overboard and shifted to offering their female mentees a lukewarm coffee in the crowded breakroom, while their male mentees get treated to a 1:1 steak dinner with whiskey and a late night meet-up with high-flying celebrity clients.
This sets junior men up for much greater connectedness, trust, and an ease with their mentor and the clients, which, in turn, are precisely the qualities that influence promotions and critical decisions about who should get the juicy stretch projects or best clients.
To ensure all mentees get the same level of care in a setting that is comfortable (and ideally equitable) - many mentors are switching everyone to power lunches -- or power breakfasts.
In most urban areas, there are places that are just as compelling as the fanciest dinner restaurant. Get to know them. (Remember, many restaurants are designed purposefully and at great expense to get you in a romantic mood at any hour. Don't pick those places.)
The key point is this: mentoring women well - and keeping it professional - is critical to the success of your team. It's not just the right thing to do: it's a business issue.
Copyright © EMMH, LLC, 2019.
Written by Emily Howe, Corporate Gender Strategist; leader of the Executive Women's Forum at the Commonwealth Club, San Francisco; coach for ambitious women in male-majority fields; expert media source/writer/speaker on workplace gender inclusion; and founder of the American Association of Corporate Gender Strategists.