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Men mentoring women in the era of #MeToo

The #MeToo movement has sparked men who claim mentoring women is now a risk. This article questions those assumptions.

5 min read




This is the first of a two-part series on the issue of men mentoring women. Part 1 addresses the reluctance of some men to mentor women.

The #MeToo movement, a grassroots effort to help survivors of sexual violence, has sparked a national dialogue on the broader problem of sexual harassment in all contexts, including in the workplace. The increased awareness of the issue has given women a voice and the courage to speak out about the hurdles they face in achieving career success.

While #MeToo has prompted reforms across the HR spectrum, one unintended consequence of #MeToo has been that some men are becoming even more reticent to mentor women. With the top executive ranks remaining predominately male, women still need men to mentor and sponsor them.

Katrin Bennhold of The New York Times cited research conducted by Sylvia Ann Hewlett that “found that two-thirds of male executives hesitated to hold one-on-one meetings with women in more junior positions, for fear they could be misconstrued.”

“The business case for women had been made,” Pat Milligan of the consulting firm Mercer told Bennhold, “We were rocking it. And then #MeToo happened.”

Milligan, who does research on women in leadership, adds: “A number of men have told me that they will avoid going to dinner with a female mentee, or that they’re concerned about deploying a woman solo on-site with a male.”

Such reluctance, however, may not be universal. Sally Helgesen, co-author with Marshall Goldsmith of “How Women Rise,” says, “I hear more men saying they are eager to or enjoy mentoring women than I ever have in the 30 years I’ve been doing my work. I think it helps that companies have laid out some ground rules and policies about how mentoring relationships can best flourish.”

Theodore J. Iwashyna M.D., Ph.D, concurs. “I am frankly skeptical that this [reluctance] is a real issue. … I would like to see evidence that there are men who used to be effective mentors to women, but have stopped out of some #MeToo-induced fear. I doubt those people really exist.”

Iwashyna, who is a professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan, a research scientist at the VA Ann Arbor and has developed a mentoring program, suspects something else. “I think this is often an insincere line of argument where men who used to not mentor women for other bogus reasons are now using another bogus reason.”

Helgesen, who has taught and mentored women leaders for decades, adds, “The very rare man who gripes about these or complains endlessly about political correctness is probably not someone you want to mentor you in the first place.”

Iwashyna cites the words of a colleague: “The inability to mentor across difference (in the many forms difference takes) is a disqualifying failure that prevents one from being in leadership in the modern era.”

Why women seek male mentors

Both women and men mentor, but it is men that some younger women prefer because most positions of authority are still held by men, so if you seek influence, you want experience from the top.

Shannon Polson, CEO of the Grit Institute, says, “Especially in fields where women are in the minority, women benefit from seeking mentorship from men who are navigating freely within a given environment. To the extent that there are unwritten rules that are part of success, a male mentor may be better able to suggest strategies to negotiate the work environment.”

Helgesen says, “Yes, women should definitely seek out both men and women as mentors. It’s important to remember that much good mentoring is informal or situational. The more you reach out and ask for feedback or support, and the more perspective you seek, the broader network of allies you will build.”

“Women being mentored by men should accord the same professionalism they would in any other work relationship,” says Polson. “Keeping firm and clear boundaries on any relationship will set it up for greater success. Mentorship is a professional relationship in a professional setting, and if conducted as such should cause no concern.”

Polson, who served as an Apache helicopter pilot in Bosnia and Korea, adds, “After working in an almost all-male field, I adopted a rule of never attending after-parties. That may seem too severe for some, but from what I experienced, the return never outweighed the risk. Being aware of perceptions is a hard lesson for a young leader, but a critical one.”

For men who mentor, here’s advice from Iwashyna: “Keep the door open, be appropriate, and learn how to mentor women, or leave.”

Mentoring is a gift that benefits not only the recipient but also the mentor. Not only do they receive the “high” that comes from giving one’s time to another, there is also the opportunity to see perspectives and ideas they hold dear reflected in the experiences and lives of the next generation.

Part 2 of this series, coming in two weeks, will contain suggestions for getting the most out of a mentoring relationship.


John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership educator and executive coach. In 2018, Trust Across America honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in Trust. Also in 2018, named Baldoni a Top 100 Leadership Speaker. In 2019, Global Gurus ranked him No. 9 on its list of top 30 global experts, a list he has been on since 2007. In 2014, named Baldoni to its list of top 50 leadership experts. Baldoni is the author of 14 books, including“MOXIE: The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership” and his newest, “GRACE: A Leader’s Guide to a Better Us.” Learn more about why he wrote “GRACE” in this short video.

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