The Biggest Dilemma Women Face With Male Mentors
I’ve made the case frequently for being mentored as a key to company launch/growth AND raising capital. The same holds true to advance along a career path. I’ve also advocated diversity (including gender diversity) as a means of increasing chances of success in company launch and growth, and if properly explained, will impress investors. But there’s a bug in the basement. There’s a critical problem when a woman look to male mentors.
Irene Donnell, a principal of our partner P5 Marketing, offers her thoughts and experience on this issue. Here goes:
A male colleague asked me to address this topic. He said it was virtually impossible for him to tell women what they need to do to enroll men in mentoring them.
Here are my thoughts on why that is. It comes down to sexual harassment fears by both men and women. Not a compatible combination with mentoring. You may find my perspective a little controversial but it is certainly a topic that needs to see daylight in a way that women can be in control of their futures and men can contribute more as well.
Let me start with a conversation with a young woman I know that wants to advance within her company. She noted that some of her male colleagues had mentors and they were enjoying both the relationship with their mentor and the impact on their careers. I’ll call her Mary. She is in her early 30’s, attractive, engaged and ambitious. Mary approached two upper-level managers whom she admired and asked each of them if they would be her mentor. Her first choice was flattered but declined due to lack of time to focus on what mentoring entails. Her second choice, who had mentored a male colleague, was somewhat more candid. He told her he although he could see that she would be an excellent student, it was too risky to accept her request. He suggested she ask another woman to be her mentor. He told her something that gave her pause for thought. He said a great mentoring relationship was founded on trust but also a depth of caring about the mentee’s future. Too many opportunities for misinterpretations.
Data suggests that although women make up 50% or more of management positions, fewer women than men are promoted to C-Suite positions. Fewer still are mentored by the men that can help them get there. Given that women in C-Suite positions have been proven to raise profits and increase the likelihood of investor funding, it seems that companies would be grooming more women for top positions.
I’m not going to address women mentoring other women, but rather some of the reasons men find themselves reluctant to mentor talented women within their companies.
First, let me say we live in a sexual harassment culture and by addressing a real issue in the workplace, we have also created a culture of distance and fear between women and the men that are potential mentors that is not beneficial to women and paints all men with the same brush.
I observe we’ve created a culture where it’s challenging to say the least, and unsafe to say the most for men to offer to mentor talented women in their workplaces. Even when they are approached by a woman who they would like to mentor, the request is fraught with concerns.
So let me address why I think this happens and the steps that women can take to be mentored by someone that they respect and would be happy to help them advance their careers.
As a younger woman in the work world, I was subjected to an occasional action by a man that I considered inappropriate or at least made me uncomfortable. However, like so many topics that we’ve allowed to become charged with political correctness, we took a problem that needed to be addressed and turned into “men waiting to harass us behind every tree” levels. Every look, every touch, every action by men come under the microscope. As a consequence, many men err on the side of caution and keep more than a necessary professional distance from the women that report to them.
As I have matured and gained more clarity and confidence in my talents and abilities, my communication skills also improved. I also noticed that’s some of the actions that men take that I construed as harassment as drilled into our heads, we’re not in fact what they intended at all. However, I did not have the confidence or communication skills needed at those moments. I look back and observe it was a relatively small sampling of men that are true sexual harassers but so often I painted them all with that same brush. And this was not always conscious. The constant conversation around sexual harassment, trainings, and lawsuits had most women looking for it, not as the exception, but the rule. I’ve since learned to conscientiously notice if my expectations for people or are based on generalizations versus the individual’s behavior I’m talking with.
I think this dilemma has a simple solution and it will take action on the part of the women who see the value in being mentored by a man in a position to help her advance. It will take concrete actions on the part of women to remove the pitfalls that men experience or expect when they consider mentoring women.
First, let’s look at some of the behaviors that come naturally when men hang out including when grooming or mentoring a younger man for career enhancement. A Senior Manager can take his protégé out for a drink after work, play a round of golf, give them a pat on the back, in other words, touched him casually (and innocently) without it being misinterpreted or gossiped about in the office. Perhaps it’s wise for a man mentoring a woman, not to see her in any capacity outside the office, but it’s a shame the same actions he might take with his male mentee would make many women wonder about his intentions. Not to mention, some actions are seen as the fodder for gossip in the office. And much of that gossip would come from women, discussing the possibility that she may be “sleeping her way to the top”. True, some women do engage in sex for advancement, but that’s another topic.
Putting aside the barriers and stereotypical reactions, what do women need to do to obtain the experience and knowledge they need to advance via mentorship?
Remember, I said it was simple. It will take confidence, personal responsibility, and some forethought but keep your eye on your goals and what will accelerate your career.
First, be prepared to have a well thought out, frank, committed conservation with your chosen mentor.
I have learned that men have qualities that make it easy to communicate with them and easy to listen to you:
- They do not listen well when distracted or involved in something else. Make an appointment so that he can give you his full attention. Do this one with all the men in your life with important conversations!
- Let him know what the purpose of the meeting up front so he knows the context of your conversation without trying to figure it out
- Men like directness, to be able to focus on the point. Women like a lot of detail. Make a conscious effort be clear in the beginning of your conversation
- They understand boundaries. Think of them as a padded wall – no need to use brick walls. Draw them early and stick to them.
- They need to feel appreciated and respected (no…don’t go to the whole men’s ego stuff)
- Contrary to stereotypes, healthy men admire confident, intelligent women
- Men like women who like men. Men avoid women who make their dislike known
- The fact that you are a woman is disarming (on some level) to most men. Use it for good or evil, but know that it’s pretty much automatic and likely to be present when you talk to men
- Men like to win. Make it easy for them to win with you
TIP: If you notice that you find it hard to accept or have an adverse reaction to the points above, I suggest you look for a female mentor. It’s hard enough to get past the stereotypes perpetuated in gender discussions but easy to sabotage our goals because of them.
I would acknowledge to your future mentor:
- That he has your respect and tell him the reasons you chose him. Tell him the qualities he has that you admire and be clear about your goals for the relationship
- That you are aware that we live in a culture of sensitivity to sexual harassment that has created a “walking on eggshells” environment at times that can make difficult for men to mentor women
- That men are understandably concerned that their gestures and intentions will be misinterpreted
- That you are confident that you both can conduct a productive, relaxed and professional relationship. That you’ll communicate how it’s going along the way
- That you would like him to extend you the same kind of relationship you would if he were mentoring a man OR draw the boundaries you think are appropriate, e.g. no activities or meetings outside work and why (gossip, etc.)
- That you will engage in open communication. If there is anything you are unsure of in his meaning or intentions, you will talk about it rather than jump to a conclusion. Ask him to do the same.
- That you are grateful for him considering your request whether or not he accepts (no consequences)
Of course, this requires you chose a grounded, professional mentor with no history of sexual comments or flirting at the office. I am not talking about the occasional compliment as nice men try hard to be complimentary. It also requires you to be honest with yourself. Do not choose a man you are attracted to. That will lead to mixed signals and make it difficult to maintain a strictly professional relationship.
If you are like me, you’ve met some extraordinary men during your business career. There are more out there and some of them will make excellent mentors.
Key Takeaway: Be yourself, be confident and set clear boundaries. Men respect that. After all, as a happy, confident woman, you are like a magical creature to men – yes magical. It’s possible to allow men to admire your work, your intelligence, even your beauty, without seeing it as sexual harassment and in fact appreciating it. It’s possible to be a woman in business without trying to be like men. Women bring so many necessary qualities to the workplace – let’s be ourselves and let men be men. Let’s be ourselves and work together. If we do, you will see more women in C-Suite positions and foster healthy, mutually beneficial relationships in the workplace.