It's never been easy being female in the workplace, and, in 2021, that hasn't changed, especially if you are a woman who is looking for a male mentor in the post-#MeToo era.
In 2018, when Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein was accused of sexually abusing women who worked for him, no one could predict how the accusations — and the rape conviction that followed — would impact women across industries. They have been seismic for working women everywhere.
As the accusations mounted and more and more women stepped forward to share stories about the treatment and abuse they had suffered in the workplace, there was little doubt that change was upon us. The movement that followed — coined #MeToo — swept the headlines, social media and watercooler conversations worldwide, becoming one of the most pivotal periods for working women across generations.
In the wake of those accusations, and Weinstein's eventual conviction in February 2020, companies began pulling out all the stops to show support for women in the workplace. Some instituted stronger sexual harassment policies. Others vowed to stop using non-disclosure agreements when settling sexual harassment claims. Many hired women executives to introduce more diversity in the hopes that a top-down approach would make female employees feel more represented and safe.
While these changes have hopefully made workplaces more hospitable for women, another problem has reared its ugly head: Studies show that men have developed a fear being associated with or being accused of sexual harassment. As a result, something valuable seems lost in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement — a willingness on the part of some men to mentor working women.
Such a development is a concern as research shows that women who have male sponsors at work are more likely to get ahead. Specifically, a 2019 study by LeanIn and SurveyMonkey shows that 60% of men say they are uncomfortable mentoring, working alone, or socializing with women, with more than a third of them saying that they are nervous about how it will look. This is a jump of 32% from the previous year.
"I do think some men are more gun shy after #MeToo," says Julie Kantor, president and founder of TwoMentor. "They're concerned that they could be accused of something (inappropriate)."
Another study finds that 19% of men say they are reluctant to hire attractive women, and 21% report they are reluctant to hire women for positions that require close, interpersonal interactions with men, such as travel. More than a quarter say they avoid one-on-one meetings with women. Researchers attribute this to the "Mike Pence rule," named for the former U.S. vice president who says he won't dine with other women unless his wife attends.
Kantor says that she's seen an uptick in more formal mentoring initiatives at various companies, which "increases people's comfort" because company leaders set up the mentoring. A recent study by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation finds that 65% of companies offer formal mentoring, coaching, leadership and professional development programs to employees.
However, all is not lost. Men who have continuously operated within the bounds of propriety say they will continue to mentor women without fear. Take John*, a leader in the female-dominated human resources arena, who throughout his career has mentored women and plans to continue to do so in the future.
"I haven't changed my approach and don't plan on changing my approach," John says when questioned about the impact of #MeToo on his mentoring practices. "I don't do bars and I don't golf. That means my singular approach to growing anyone — regardless of gender — is to focus on performance, opportunity and what's in it for them careerwise."
John says no men in his network say they will cut back on mentoring women because of #MeToo, and believes that reducing mentoring for women has been "an overreaction by a small number of men" and "overblown" in the media.
"Perhaps men who rely on social situations to foster connections might back off of that approach a bit, but informal mentoring still works 100% as long as your focus is clear," John says.
Kantor says that when she was addressing a group of about 35 male and female law enforcement officials about who was serving as a mentor, "the only two white men in the room were the only ones that raised their hands," she says.
"I have to say my jaw dropped," she says. "But what I learned is that men need to be recognized for their (mentoring) efforts, and we need to realize that there are men who are generous as mentors."
Research finds that "male champions," those who are seen as advocates for female leadership, support the idea that both men and women need to be involved in helping advance the careers of women. At the same time, such champions report it takes courage and persistence to overcome those who resist gender inclusiveness in their teams or peer groups.
Kantor believes that as more companies focus on diversity and inclusion, it's a good time for women and people of color to step forward and offer to mentor others. By "mentoring people who don't look like you" and "setting up mentorship programs where women feel safe," Kantor says that both companies and individual careers will benefit.