Given current events, gender dynamics at work are top of mind for both employees and employers. Recently, Arianna Huffington tweeted “3x as many male managers are now uncomfortable mentoring women in the wake of #MeToo. This is a huge step in the wrong direction. We need more men to #MentorHer.” I agree with this sentiment – if men are scared to mentor women at work, then it will take even longer to close the gender gap in the workplace. However, it appears that men are frightened because they are concerned that what they will say or do in their mentoring relationships with women will be perceived as harassing. For this reason, they may avoid mentoring women altogether.
Of course, the idea that women frequently “cry wolf” when it comes to sexual harassment is a myth (the false reporting rate for sexual harassment is the same as the false reporting rate for any other crime/allegation). But, the fear still seems to persist. The good news is that I believe that there is a solution to this – driving male champion behaviors at work when it comes to gender equity. Luckily my collaborator, Anna Marie Valerio (Executive Leadership Strategies, LLC) and I have been working on NSF and SHRM-funded projects related to this very topic.
The important thing to emphasize with regard to Arianna Huffington’s tweet is that men may feel uncomfortable mentoring women because being a mentor is just half the battle when it comes to effectively championing women at work. The other half of the battle is being a good ally to women at work. This means that men who mentor women should not only be able to help in tactical ways (e.g., career progression, networking, etc.) but they should also be able to help in political and social ways (e.g., how to address discrimination at work, how to balance work and family, etc.). If men had this knowledge, they wouldn’t be afraid to mentor women. Instead, they would understand what women need to be successful at work and actively create equitable environments with women (not for them).
Research in the area of discrimination is widespread, but research in the area of inclusivity is very scant. In other words, men know which harassing behaviors they should definitely avoid, but they don’t know which behaviors they should actively enact in order to create inclusive environments at work.
However, this knowledge doesn’t always make it into the hands of male leaders. Why not? For one thing, research in the area of discrimination is widespread, but research in the area of inclusivity is very scant. In other words, men know which harassing behaviors they should definitely avoid, but they don’t know which behaviors they should actively enact in order to create inclusive environments at work. As mentioned above, my collaborator and I are working to solve this problem by interviewing female-nominated male champions at work, as well as the females who nominated them, in order to derive the behaviors that lead to inclusivity. In this way, men can be taught which behaviors are most effective, taking the guesswork out of championing women at work.
By determining which behaviors drive inclusivity, we will not only create conditions under which men feel more comfortable mentoring women, but we will also drive more effective championship overall. While the idea of #mentorher is a decent one, there is one big caveat - what if the men who are mentoring women at work don’t know how? What if they are thinking in sexist or outdated ways about women’s career management themselves? Of course, it’s great to have mentors (in fact, women who are mentored by powerful men are more successful than women who are mentored by powerful women). But, the mentors have to truly understand the mentee’s career trajectory, the challenges they face at work, and their overarching goals before they can be really effective.
By determining which behaviors drive inclusivity, we will not only create conditions under which men feel more comfortable mentoring women, but we will also drive more effective championship overall.
Overall, it’s important to remember that avoiding a problem won’t fix it. Sexual harassment in the workplace is a huge issue that has recently come into the forefront of household conversation. However, just because harassment exists, doesn’t mean that mentorship is impossible. Men who know how to champion women are already working with them to create inclusive behaviors. All we need now is an understanding of what the behaviors are that drive gender inclusivity and to spread the word about them. It’s true that it may be #timesup on sexual harassment, but just because most women have had a #metoo moment, doesn’t mean that #mentorher is a pipedream. I believe that we can drive inclusivity at work – all we need is a greater knowledge of the behaviors involved in making it happen. Stay tuned to see what Anna Marie and I find in our work on this topic and how you can get access to our articles!
Katina Sawyer, PhD is an Assistant Professor in the Graduate HRD program at Villanova University. Connect with her on LinkedIn and learn more about her here!