Smith Brain Trust / April 4, 2018

Mentoring in a #MeToo Era

Movement's Backlash Could Chill Healthy Relationships

Mentoring in a #MeToo Era

SMITH BRAIN TRUST – In recent months, as revelations unfurled amid the #MeToo movement and as certain men were toppled from positions of power, something else was happening, too. Men were increasingly becoming reluctant to mentor women at work.

A survey earlier this year from nonprofit LeanIn.Org revealed that, since sexual harassment began dominating headlines last fall, catapulting the “MeToo” trending hashtag into a movement, the number of male managers who are uncomfortable mentoring women has tripled, climbing to 16 percent from 5 percent.

Senior male managers, meanwhile, said they were 3.5 times more likely to hesitate before having a work dinner with a junior female colleague, compared to a male one, since the #MeToo movement. And they reported feeling 5 times more likely to hesitate about traveling for work with a junior female colleague.

It’s all part of a worrying trend, says Neta Moye, clinical professor of management at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

“If there is an increasing unwillingness to mentor women at work as a result of #MeToo, that will decrease the opportunities for women at work,” Moye says. “And that’s the exact opposite of what’s needed.”

Regardless of gender, having a mentor or sponsor, someone in a senior position at the office who will advocate for promotions and other advancement, plays a significant role in determining career success. People with mentors or sponsors are more likely overall to get promoted, according to research from LeanIn.Org.

By mentoring women, Moye says, men can be part of the solution. “One thing that can work to address #MeToo is to have more women in leadership positions,” she says.

Organizations that tap women for the highest leadership positions see greater gender equality as a result, the Smith School’s Liu Yang has found in her research, and they slash the gender wage gap in half. "When women take leadership roles, it promotes a more gender equitable culture,” says Yang, an associate professor of finance. “It makes people think about the contributions that women bring to the firm and slowly that changes the culture.”

“I don’t want to chastise men and say, ‘Don’t be an idiot. Step up and take the risk and mentor women.’ Because I understand the fear,” Moye says. The fear among some men is that, through no fault of their own, they might end up as a #MeToo story, for a single, small, ill-considered comment without any untoward intent. The fear is that they might do something or say something inadvertently that could be perceived as offensive, and that could lead to a visit to Human Resources, a suspension, a censure, a firing.

“I’d like to say to men, ‘Yes, I get that. I get that fear, totally,’” Moye says.

But, she adds, “None of the stories that we learned about in the #MeToo movement was a small, one-time, accidental incident in which some man says to some woman at work: ‘I like your dress.’ These stories are of men who are knowingly, willingly abusing power, usually repeatedly, in order to get sexual favors from women.”

Moye applauds the #MentorHer movement, a hashtag call to action led by LeanIn.Org founder Sheryl Sandberg. Research, including findings from the Smith School’s Subra Tangirala, shows that men are often hesitant to join gender-parity initiatives at work, partly because they feel it’s not their place to engage in so-called women’s issues. But everyone in an organization, regardless of gender, has a stake in gender-parity programs, Tangirala says.

Business schools have an important role to play as well, “shaping attitudes and driving conversations about gender in the workplace,” Smith School Dean Alexander J. Triantis has said.

For men with a newfound apprehension about engaging one-on-one with their female colleagues, there are plenty of tips for conveying that your intentions aren’t unseemly, Moye says. They can talk about their intentions directly or send these more subtle signals. 

  • If you take your mentee to a meal, make it a lunch rather than a dinner.
  • Skip wine or cocktails, and order sparkling water or coffee instead.
  • Schedule meetings for public spaces, rather than closed-door settings.
  • Invite a third person, perhaps another mentee, or another colleague. Consider it an opportunity to help your mentee make a helpful professional connection.

Sarah Kroncke, a senior lecturer of finance at the Smith School, says she recently has seen a positive outgrowth of the #MeToo movement – a more open, emerging dialogue between men and women, mentors and mentees, and colleague-to-colleague about challenges faced at work.

“Everyone should be talking about this, and this creates a mechanism for doing that,” Kroncke says. “Over time, it shouldn’t hurt the mentor relationship; it should strengthen it by opening up the dialogue.”

Just recently, she says, someone asked her whether she faced harassment and discrimination at work during her years in the finance industry. “I was glad to be asked," she said. "I don’t know that I would have been so readily asked before.”



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