February 24, 2024

Fewer Mentors, Bigger Problems

Author: Ashley St. John
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A 2018 survey from the LeanIn Foundation and SurveyMonkey found that nearly half of male managers felt uncomfortable participating in a common work activity with a woman, such as mentoring, working alone or socializing together.

Specifically, the number of male managers who felt uncomfortable mentoring women went from 5 percent to 16 percent in late 2017 after the #MeToo movement went viral. That means about 1 in 6 male managers would hesitate to mentor a woman.

This hesitation and fear pose problems for women and for the success of companies. Organizations that fail to properly address this unintentional backlash of the #MeToo movement may be in trouble. Learning leaders can help to create an inclusive environment where employees feel safe to talk about the complexities of the #MeToo movement and any concerns stemming from it.

Self-Imposed Fear

Amri Johnson, former global head of diversity and inclusion at Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research, said people are grappling with the notion of mentoring and meritocracy and questioning whether they are comfortable being a sponsor. “They were grappling with that before the whole #MeToo movement came to a head as it has in the past year or so,” he said. “At this point, men who had a certain amount of hesitance around mentorship or sponsorship — it’s probably reinforced it.”

Johnson said he hasn’t heard men articulate that they are not interested in mentoring, but some men have expressed that they don’t always feel comfortable because they don’t know what the response will be. “There have been some statements about men not feeling comfortable hugging women in the same way because they don’t know what the impact will be of something that they historically felt was benign,” he said. “But what does it mean if someone takes it the wrong way or if someone is out to sabotage someone? I think that’s rarely the case, but I imagine most men are not going to talk about it if they are uncomfortable.”

He noted that men who have long been committed to mentorship and gender representation haven’t changed notably. Personally, the #MeToo movement hasn’t changed Johnson’s own interactions with his women mentees in terms of his mentoring and advice, but he said he’s more cautious in certain situations. “I probably think for a minute when I have less of a history with someone,” he said. “I gauge their openness to something like a hug versus a handshake.”

When a mentor wants to contribute to someone’s growth, Johnson said the last thing the mentor should be thinking about is themselves. “And most people, if they’re thinking about themselves most of the time, they might be more concerned about #MeToo than [the growth of] that person, but if you genuinely care and you’re committed to developing your people, your concern is more about them than it is about yourself,” he said.

Johnson said that doesn’t mean people can’t feel a sense of self-protection, because a damaging story can wreck a career. “But if you’re concerned about it, you have some other work to do beyond your mentoring relationship,” he said. “The reality is that a lot of men have exhibited certain behaviors that they are not proud of, and they are not sure if they would resurface and who would resurface them.”

But Johnson said there is a larger problem than men in power fearing they will be exposed or accused of misconduct — and that’s retaining valuable women. “A lot of our efforts to attract and retain women in leadership and in more senior roles in particular — they can be compromised, but quietly,” he said.

An Organizational Reality

Rosina Racioppi, president and CEO of Women Unlimited, a consulting firm specializing in helping women in the workplace through mentoring, education and networking, said the #MeToo movement has brought more attention to the challenges in creating parity in organizations.

She said companies that focus on developing and advancing women start by holding managers accountable for providing opportunity and feedback to women. According to Racioppi, the male managers she works with often question how they can effectively develop the women on their team and how they can best provide support to women.

“One repercussion of the #MeToo movement is that it has created apprehension and a barrier of concern for some men,” she said. “As a result, it is even more important for companies to support their managers and understand how to effectively provide feedback and guidance.”

She said women often don’t receive the same feedback and career guidance as men. During the past 25 years, she has seen that men are often not comfortable providing women with the feedback needed to support their development. “We also see that male managers often provide more transactional feedback — feedback about work done — but do not provide feedback on how to prepare for future opportunities.”

Over time, Racioppi said this results in women not being well-prepared for advancement. Knowing this is an organizational reality, she said developing relationships within the organization is vital. She said there is a misguided belief that parity will be achieved through meritocracy. “We know that this is not enough,” she said. “Mentoring is crucial because it helps women understand the rules of engagement in organizations.”

She said women often begin their careers with the false belief that their work will be enough. Mentors help women learn how to navigate the organization and how to engage with others to get things done.

“One of my mentors describes this as having leadership grace — how to confront without being confrontational, how to disagree without being disagreeable,” she said. “Mentors provide women with a decoder ring to understand the unwritten rules of organizations.”

A Different Point of View

Casey Foss, executive director of marketing at West Monroe Partners, a multinational management and technology consulting firm, works in an industry with a disproportionate number of male executives. However, she was able to benefit greatly from her male mentors.

“Early in my career, I consistently looked toward women to mentor me because they had walked in my shoes,” she said. “But as I grew in my career, specifically in the consulting space, heads of marketing across firms were men and executive team members were men.”

Foss realized she needed guidance from people with different life experiences than her. “It was a clear choice for me to hand pick and choose male mentors who I thought would push me differently,” she said. “The men I’ve sought out are uniquely valuable — they’re free from some of the patriarchal constraints that I face, and they naturally think very expansively about career matters and situations.”

Foss said her male mentors have applied that expansive thinking to her. “They help me see beyond the expectations I subconsciously place on myself, given all of the other roles I play in life — whether it be mother, wife, daughter,” she said. “However, I also have made it authentic to who I am, and I haven’t lost sight of that along the way. I’m making career choices supported by male mentors and guided but not driven by them.”

Racioppi agreed that it is important for women to gain insight into how male leaders view issues and challenges. “Not that one is right or wrong, but rather that they expand their perspective,” she said. “This is especially critical for women at the midcareer stage as they are preparing for roles that are less defined.”

Just as organizations need to understand how to create environments where women can be effective, Racioppi said women must understand how to develop effective relationships with their male colleagues. Male mentors help women gain this insight, she said.

On the other hand, as the number of women continues to increase in organizations, Racioppi said male leaders need to gain comfort and expertise in leading and developing people who don’t look like them — and mentoring women is a good way to gain this understanding.

If Men Opt Out

Racioppi said it is understandable in this time of heightened conversation that some men may have concerns, but it is important to remind men that if they approach these relationships with respect and openness, there is nothing to cause apprehension.

“In our programs, we talk with the women as well as mentors to have a discussion about the ground rules that will guide their relationships,” she said. “We have found it helpful to create a framework of how we will work together.” She encourages women and their mentors to discuss how they like to receive feedback and how they will handle issues that arise.

Foss said if men are doing the right thing in mentoring relationships — not sexually harassing or using power for personal gain — they can stay above the fray and be successful. “My fear is that men use the #MeToo movement as an excuse to opt out versus a reason to opt in and empower women, elevate women and treat them as equals,” she said. “If men opt out of mentoring women, we never get past the #MeToo movement. It only gets worse.” She added that it’s incumbent on companies to make sure the environment is right and that the relationships feel safe, comfortable and authentic.

Further, Racioppi said if there are fewer male mentors, men will have less insight into the issues and challenges women are experiencing in the workplace. At the end of a mentoring program at Women Unlimited, Racioppi said one senior male leader from a financial services company shared the following: “I am certain that the women on my team experience similar challenges. Either they are trying to tell me, and I am not hearing them, or they are not comfortable telling me. Either way, it is a problem for me as a leader.”

Learning Leaders Can Help

Johnson said the biggest problem regarding the #MeToo movement is that few people are comfortable talking about the complexities of the movement publicly and openly. “If there was a conversation about it openly, it would be different than if we just have it in the background and women are negatively affected by it over time, and thus their organizations are affected by it as well,” he said.

Johnson said many leaders don’t know how to have difficult conversations. “When they get a little tense and difficult and the public opinion is as it has been around race and gender, it’s very difficult and very few organizations are up to the task or have the skill,” he said.

Johnson said having better internal conversations in companies could help mitigate the challenge that companies face by men who aren’t willing to say anything. “The organizations that are ahead of it are in a good space to do something extraordinary — but I don’t think that is the majority,” he said.

Johnson said when “diversity” is talked about, it is mostly discussed on a representational level rather than encompassing the complexity of the issue. “It needs to be about how to have conversations around managing tensions and complexities around differences in a meaningful way,” he said. “A lot of it is just being vulnerable — and a lot of folks do not like vulnerability.”

He said learning leaders can help company leaders take steps to have open communication about men’s anxieties and the intricacies of the issue. “Start with vulnerability, then have people build the skills around perspective taking and build the skills around one’s capacity to listen in a way that’s not listening for what you want to hear or listening to become defensive — but listening enough to take it in.”

He said those conversations can cause tension and be emotionally challenging, but that’s where having an effective facilitator can help. “Someone who teaches those skills to people at high levels can diffuse some of that tension and allow people to have a conversation that produces a result where folks feel comfortable being who they are and saying what’s on their minds,” he said.

Johnson added that organizations need to do everything they can to keep dialogue open and not place blame.

“Sometimes when you have a #MeToo [situation], people want to push it to the side and not think that it’s impacting business strategy and results, but those little things underneath that might not be very apparent could be barriers to the highest levels of performance of your organization,” he said. “Those in the learning space are experts at discovering where those tensions are and then figuring out who can provide us with the content and skills needed to work through it.”

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