Recently at the Davos Forum, the New York Times reported on anxieties that men had about mentoring women. Perhaps it’s because of the continuing fallout of the #MeToo movement—where over 200 prominent men have been removed from their positions.
There appears to be an emerging concern that cross-gender mentoring should be approached with caution. But this conflates the serious issue of harassment with boundary setting. Effective and impactful mentoring should be cognizant of gender identity, but not limited by it.
I’ve been conducting research on mentoring for over a decade, and much of my work looks at cross-gender mentoring, mainly because the numbers of women in leadership roles is so low. In many cases, the only mentorship available to junior women is from men.
That’s why the thought of men shying away from mentoring women is so troubling, because it has severe implications for the advancement of women in organizations. If some men are withdrawing from mentoring, this will impact the ability of women to advance in leadership. And it is particularly true for women of color, who often experience double marginalization in organizations that are male-dominated and predominantly white.
Mentoring can’t be done at arm’s length. Mentoring, by definition, is a close relationship between a junior person and a senior person in an organization. There are types of developmental relationships that eschew the personal—role modeling, sponsorship, and coaching. But mentoring means a connection between career development and personal development. And frankly, not everyone is suited to serve as a mentor to any junior person: the match matters, personality and interest-wise.
However, many organizations still have glass ceilings that prevent women from advancing to the highest levels of leadership. For men in these organizations, the responsibility to provide access to pathways of leadership is profound. It is unlikely that women leaders will emerge without the support and nurturing of supportive mentors.
A major reason behind this emerging concern is something theorists term toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity is not defining men as problematic, but rather, the socially sanctioned behavior of men that validates aggression and status-climbing. The term sometimes pops up after mass shootings or domestic violence incidents, but it also manifests itself in the workplace when some men feel their everyday interactions with women are at risk of accusations of harassment—so their solution is to avoid women altogether.
But here is the reality: it is entirely possible to develop close, supportive relationships that are entirely avoidant of harassment.
Leaders have a responsibility to understand the ethics of organizational behavior. “Opting out” of any engagement with women essentially embraces the idea that men are unable to control their behavior, or lack judgment about what constitutes appropriate conduct. In fact, this belief is an affront to the professionalism and obligations of male leaders. It would be inappropriate for anyone to purposely avoid a colleague out of fear of a false accusation of impropriety. Justifying this choice is the essence of a mindset that limits the potential for mentorship across gender identities.
There is a large space between supportive mentoring and harassment: sharing work projects, interpersonal networks, and identifying strengths and weaknesses in a resume should not trigger a response in male mentors to retreat. Men who mentor junior women have a responsibility to ensure their protégés are protected and treated as they would want to be treated: as emerging leaders, valued members of the organization who bring impressive skills to work, and as equals in potential and aspirations.
Gender equity is a goal that everyone in an organization should embrace. Those in privileged positions have a responsibility to help all individuals in the organization reach their full potential. Raising awareness of impediments such as toxic masculinity, as well as training and role-playing over mentoring situations that can become problematic will inform mentors and mentees of ways to navigate their relationship successfully. Ultimately, we all have a responsibility to achieve more inclusive and equitable educational and professional environments and meet the challenges that require all voices in leadership.
Richard J. Reddick is an associate professor of educational leadership and policy at The University of Texas at Austin, where he also holds courtesy appointments in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies, the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, and the Warfield Center for African and African American Studies. He is also assistant director of the Plan II Honors Program.