Men in positions of power need to overcome their fears, Hugo Schwyzer writes, and start making themselves available to members of the opposite sex.
I received two similar emails last week asking the same question: why don’t more men in positions of authority mentor women?
The first came from a college student, Jackie. She wrote:
At the college I attend I have noticed that most male instructors are mentors to males. However, I noticed most of them do not engage in such activities with female students. A fellow student of mine has lunch with one of his professors every now and then, this has given the him a great advantage. I have yet to see this type of relationship with a female student and a male professor. My take on it is that this is because if a male professor was seen at lunch with a female student it would be looked upon as inappropriate. A female friend of mine and I were discussing this and we agreed we are uncomfortable with asking a male professor for his mentorship for fear of him taking it inappropriately.
The second came from Claire, a PR professional in her early 30s:
I work directly under the senior vice-president of our company. He’s a brilliant man, and he’s done so many iconic things in our industry. He’s married and has scrupulous boundaries with women. Maybe too scrupulous, as he regularly takes a couple of my male peers to lunch alone, but only brings me along when I’m part of a larger group. These guys benefit from the VP’s one-on-one attention, but because of his apparent anxiety about being alone with me, I only get a fraction of the time with him that my male colleagues do. I worry that it will be taken as a sexual advance if I ask to get that same treatment the “boys” get.
I wrote last month that men should do all they could to avoid becoming part of the “old boy networks” that are still so pervasive in both business and academia. In the old boy networks, senior men mentor guys whom they see as protégés; women are excluded due to rank sexism. But as both Claire and Jackie make clear, the reluctance of many men to mentor young women has less to do with a belief in female inferiority and more to do with fear of sexual impropriety.
Sexual harassment is, of course, a real and still-virulent problem in universities and corporate settings alike. There are still plenty of professors and bosses who foist unwelcome attention on their female students and employees. But too many men in positions of authority, keenly aware of the reality of harassment, have moved to the opposite extreme. The only way to ensure that they aren’t perceived as harassers is to refuse to be alone with a female employee or student, and to avoid providing the close, one-on-one mentoring that is so often a vital component of the younger person’s success.
Some of these men are motivated by a fear of being falsely accused of sexual harassment. Others are simply uncertain of how to mentor a woman, imagining that it must be so different than working with a man that it’s easier not to try in the first place. And some are married or otherwise committed men who worry about office or campus gossip—or about their partners’ sexual jealousy. The end result, unfortunately, is always the same: women aren’t mentored as frequently as their male peers.
Businesses of course, are famously risk-averse; colleges and universities only slightly less so. Corporate counsels worry more about sexual harassment lawsuits than they do about the far rarer suits over a failure to provide fair and equal mentoring. They likely figure that encouraging a still largely male professoriate and an overwhelmingly male CEO class to mentor younger women might open the company or school to a flood of litigation. But just as unwanted sexual advances can create a hostile working environment for women, so too can an environment in which men’s fear leads them to exclude female subordinates from the ranks of potential mentees.
The burden for changing this dynamic can’t fall onto female students or junior employees. With greater authority comes greater responsibility, after all; it’s the job of male professors and supervisors to push past their own discomfort in order to make sure that they are equally open to mentoring women and men. This means getting very clear on what constitutes harassment—and what doesn’t. It means being willing to stand up to the kind of tedious and predictable gossip that nearly invariably follows when a man begins to mentor a woman.
The responsibility for changing this dynamic can’t fall on individual men alone. Rather, institutions and corporations need to be assiduous about encouraging fearless mentoring as most of them are about preventing sexual harassment. Countless companies and colleges offer voluntary (or, increasingly, mandatory) sexual harassment prevention training to their employees. The goal of these trainings is to prevent lawsuits, and most focus on long lists of what not to do. It would be helpful if part of the time devoted to sexual harassment prevention could be given over to teaching techniques for effective cross-sex mentoring.
But this problem will not be resolved until we accept the simple truth that men and women can be friends. Too many of us are invested in the myth that unilateral or mutual sexual attraction makes platonic relationships impossible. As long as we insist that lust makes friendship impossible, we’ll continue to be deeply mistrustful of any man who claims he’s “only” mentoring a female student or subordinate. That mistrust, left unchallenged, will remain one of the most impenetrable components of the infamous glass ceiling that blocks women from achieving full equality with men in every aspect of public life.
It’s important to mentor younger people. But we do best with mentors of both sexes in our lives; we all need to see that success has no gender. For men in positions of authority, the challenge is to move past their fears and to make themselves generously and equally available as mentors to both men and women. For the rest of us, the challenge is to accept that these relationships are both possible and necessary.
—Photo Alex E. Proimos/Flickr