Mentoring, long touted as one of the key solutions to inequality at work, may be less appealing to both men and women these days. Prominent men are being publicly outed for sexual harassment, with the latest examples coming from French gaming company Ubisoft, U.S.-based Fox News and porn star Ron Jeremy. Even women working from home are not immune to sexual harassment.
Due to heightened awareness around sexual harassment, a majority of men feel increasingly uncomfortable with women at work. In fact, in 2019, 60 percent of men surveyed by LeanIn.org indicated they would avoid working alone with, socializing with or mentoring women.
Women know that without access to male mentors, they will be less likely to achieve their career goals. However, women are also apprehensive about experiencing sexual harassment. In light of these findings, the question arises: What if cross-gender mentoring, often so instrumental to career success, is itself vulnerable to toxicity and sexual harassment?
Our past research demonstrates that women with good male mentors benefit tremendously. In our latest research, we explore steps that individuals and organizations can take to maintain the benefits of cross-gender mentoring while minimizing sexual-harassment concerns.
In our most recent survey, nearly 1,000 women across a range of occupations and job levels reflected on their “least successful mentoring relationship that may have included negative experiences.” We found that one-third of the 954 women had faced sexual harassment. While one-third is a troubling statistic, our multiple measures, including surveys and 20 in-depth interviews, told an even more concerning story related to the status and causes of sexual harassment in cross-gender mentoring.
There’s a disconnect between labeling and experiencing sexual harassment in mentoring.
We found a large discrepancy between those who reported experiencing sexually harassing behaviors within their mentoring relationship and those who actually labeled it as sexual harassment. The 653 protégés who indicated they were not harassed revealed a deeper story about how women characterize their experiences and what their experiences of objective behavior reveal when responding to a behavioral set of questions about harassment.
Specifically, of the women who said that they did not experience sexual harassment, 47 percent reported some level of gender harassment where they experienced insulting, hostile and degrading remarks and attitudes about their gender; 25 percent reported unwanted sexual advances; and 28 percent experienced actual sexual coercion. This indicates that while women may be experiencing sexual harassment in mentoring relationships, they either do not classify certain behaviors as sexually harassing or they are reluctant to admit to the experience. In fact, the majority of the women we interviewed mentioned their distaste for being seen as a victim. They worry about the negative career consequences of being “that girl” who speaks up.
Organizational culture sets the stage for bad behavior in mentoring relationships.
It is not simply that a “bro culture” automatically leads to sexual harassment in mentoring. Instead, organizational culture in which tolerance for sexual harassment is high matters. In cultures with high tolerance for sexual harassment, women feel uncomfortable reporting the behavior and worry that they will experience negative personal consequences. Moreover, we found that hypermasculine behaviors in mentors in tandem with negative organizational cultures are more likely to lead to sexual harassment.
Hypermasculine behaviors include aggression, such as yelling and cursing at work. This behavior carries over to the mentoring relationship. Another aspect of hypermasculinity is a strong sexual identity. As an example, one mentor showed vacation pictures of the women he “hooked up with” to his protégé.
Formal mentoring programs can be risky for women.
We found that formal mentoring relationships produce higher levels of negative mentoring behavior than informal relationships. This is counterintuitive to the prevailing wisdom. Why do more bad things happen in formal relationships? Because formal mentoring relationships traditionally pair a higher-status and higher-power person with a lower-status and lower-power person. Many times, these formal mentoring programs are about helping women and people of color or other high potentials get ahead, so right away this can create a situation of stereotype vulnerability. Also, formal mentoring programs often do not provide much choice in terms of who gets paired with whom, which can lead to an acceleration of bad behavior as well.
5 strategies to maximize organizational and career mentoring benefits
To reap the benefits of cross-gender mentoring and minimize the type of negative experiences reported, attention should be paid at both the individual and organizational level regarding how best to structure, select and train those in mentorships. Individuals tasked with designing mentoring programs, as well as individuals choosing to engage in mentoring relationships, should consider adopting the following five strategies to maximize organizational and career mentoring benefits.
1. Measure organizational tolerance for sexual harassment regularly. Many organizations regularly assess engagement and climate and integrate a short measure of overall tolerance for sexual harassment into ongoing assessments. Similarly, most organizations require that every employee undergo sexual harassment training, so including a measure of organizational tolerance would be a great way to track culture regularly. In fact, our research demonstrated that cultures with low tolerance for sexual harassment can mitigate the dangers inherent in the unequal power dynamic in formal mentoring programs. Adding a measure of organizational tolerance to mentor program evaluations would go a long way toward developing awareness and prevention of sexual harassment in mentoring. After all, if you don’t measure it, you can’t change it.
2. Carefully screen and select mentors. Most organizations employ a rigorous process of recruitment and selection of managers. Why not employ these same stringent methods to the recruitment and selection of mentors? After all, not everyone has the core competency to be a good manager or mentor. Our research suggests that it would be wise to measure aspects that predict bad mentoring, such as dominance and aggression; strong sexual identity; devalued emotions; and anti-feminine orientation. Empower protégés to choose their mentors. Giving protégés and mentors choice over their mentoring partner is crucial in eliminating negative power dynamics.
3. Revamp mentor training completely! We have designed and delivered curriculum on mentor training for more than 20 years, and it has not changed dramatically in that time. First, mentor training needs to incorporate sexual-harassment awareness overall. Second, an analysis of our interviews suggests that curriculum needs to be updated to include appropriate use of social media within mentorships, how to have awkward conversations and bystander training.
4. Make mentoring relationships mutual so power flows both ways. Reverse the power dynamic by making all mentoring relationships mutually dependent and reciprocal. In our work with students and clients, we find a project that creates interdependence between mentors and protégés is very helpful in establishing equality and accountability. For example, our clients have created marketing plans, research papers, conference presentations and charitable events in their work together as pairs.
5. Teach protégés to develop a network of multiple mentors. Giving protégés a mentor through a formal mentoring program is still a good thing. However, teaching employees how to develop a network of mentors for themselves should be an important part of the mentoring curriculum. When protégés have a wide network, the power differential between themselves and a mentor is diffused and both of their networks can be helpful to each other.
Taking a fresh look at mentoring in a post #MeToo world is critical to the careers of men, women and organizations. This is also true as we engage in critical conversations about race and privilege, discussing how women of color are treated in the workplace. Everybody wins when cross-gender mentoring works well.
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