It's a sensitive time in this #MeToo era.
As Peter J. Strauss described it in Forbes, "Over the past few months, there has been an important and long overdue national conversation surrounding the topics of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior in the workplace."
And while the movement has generated massive positive change, "some of the fallout from the ongoing discussion has been the expression of caution—and even a bit of fear—around male-female interactions in the workplace," Strauss noted.
One biggie: Since media reports of extensive sexual harassment started surfacing in fall 2017, a survey from women's empowerment non-profit LeanIn.Org and online survey platform SurveyMonkey found that male managers are three times as likely to say they are uncomfortable mentoring women. They're also twice as uncomfortable working alone with a woman than they are working isolation with another man.
Add to that, the statistic that senior men are now 3.5 times more likely to hesitate over establishing a working dinner with a junior female colleague (versus a male at the same level) and five times more likely to hesitate to travel for work with a junior woman, and women are clearly missing out. LeanIn.org is already on the case; it created a #MentorHer program in February that already features many high power male mentors with female mentees.
Strauss also challenged his peers and the workforce at large to maintain mentoring strides and keep pushing for further gains.
"I would like to encourage my peers to change the tone of this conversation and focus on the many successful male-female work relationships we have each seen, fostered and benefited from," he said. "A workplace is super-charged by having a mix of well-mentored men and women. We need more men to mentor women because they'll be helping to positively change the workplace."
Male mentors benefit, too, according to sociologist David G. Smith and psychologist W. Brad Johnson, who described the aspects of cross-gender professional relationships that flood men with anxiety in Harvard Business Review. Many male mentors they interviewed said they often learned more from female mentee than the females learned from them.
What holds men back from becoming a mentor?
"Partly, these guys are rattled by the prospect of close, caring, but nonsexual developmental relationships with women at work," the pair of researchers concluded.
But when guys back away from mentoring women, "The net outcome is unsatisfactory for women and for the companies and organizations that hire them," they said.
Here are tips from Smith and Johnson and Strauss for men who mentor women, to the benefit of the workplace, the women and the men themselves:
Focus on professional progress. Rules for mentoring should be the same no matter the gender of the mentee. "What's the mentor or mentee's motivation for entering into this mentoring relationship?" Strauss asked. "You focus on skills, talents, goals and competencies."
Give constructive feedback. "Keep it real by not veering off the track of professional growth."
Think of mutual growth. "Focus on developing the women and men on your teams through impactful mentoring that elevates both the mentor and the mentee," Strauss said.
Ask if you're unsure. Colleagues or HR can help you understand what is considered inappropriate behavior and what is acceptable. "Something that was a compliment years ago might be considered an inappropriate comment today," Strauss said.
Practice common courtesy and respect. "Treat a female colleague as you would any other colleague," Strauss advised. "Men should take the extra step of educating themselves on the definition of sexual harassment and what it means to women in a professional setting.."
Learn to listen up. "Men can be more effective mentors for women if they practice listening skills with the goal of showing empathy versus trying to quickly problem solve or 'fix' things for her," Smith and Johnson noted. "In the process of listening, male mentors may find that they develop and appreciate enhanced interpersonal skills, access to larger networks and insider knowledge of their organization that makes them more effective leaders."
Quit worrying about the crying already! Men must take it in stride if a female mentee cries. In the words of Smith and Johnson, "Get over it already, dudes. Men should appreciate the research showing that greater prolactin levels, human evolution and socialized permission are at play here, not weakness or distress."
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