Men Are Afraid to Mentor Women Post-#MeToo, But They Shouldn’t Be


I’ll start here: I believe the #MeToo movement was critical for America. 

It got us all thinking – and more importantly, talking – about exactly how rampant sexual misconduct is in the average American workplace, among other locales. It opened many people’s eyes to an institutional denial, ignorance and at times indifference to a serious issue that has long plagued too many places.

Crucially, the #MeToo and #TimesUp hashtags have done more than help topple powerful men such as Matt Lauer, Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose and Les Moonves for sexual harassment. The movement has raised awareness of sexual misconduct and shaped a more supportive environment for victims to report offensive behavior, encouraging and empowering them to speak up at last.

From an HR perspective, many companies are now motivated to prioritize bringing their sexual harassment policies out of the pastOpens a new window , and to provide better employee training.

Unfortunately, on the flip side this movement has also made many male executives afraid to mentor women. HR experts warn that this unintended consequence of the #MeToo campaign could restrain gender diversity efforts.

As ridiculous as it may sound, it’s actually a serious problem.

Ultimately, men should be aware. They should be accountable. But they shouldn’t be afraid.

Gender equality as a risk-management issue

As Katrin Bennhold framed it in a recent New York Times articleOpens a new window , “companies seeking to minimize the risk of sexual harassment or misconduct appear to be simply minimizing contact between female employees and senior male executives, effectively depriving the women of valuable mentorship and exposure.”

Late last year, BloombergOpens a new window  found that the #MeToo era has led to a new rule: Avoid women at all costs. American business leaders – mostly men – are more focused on reducing their risk of liability for sexual harassment than on finding lasting solutions to the problem.

Some of the key statistics that I’ve seen on the subject suggest that fear and confusion are driving this reaction from many decision-makers. For example, a Pew Research Center survey conducted in February and March 2018 found that more than half of Americans agree that the newly-intensified focus on sexual misconduct and harassment makes it more difficult for men to understand the difference between right and wrong ways to interact with women at work.

Similarly, Lean In and SurveyMonkey ran a pollOpens a new window  on the effects of #MeToo in the workplace. Key findings:

  • Nearly one of every two male managers is uncomfortable engaging in common work activities with a female coworker (e.g. mentoring, working one-on-one or socializing).
  • Almost 30% of male managers are hesitant to work alone with a woman.
  • The number of male managers uncomfortable mentoring women has more than tripled since before the #MeToo movement. One in six male managers are now wary of mentoring women.

Considering these numbers, it’s unsurprising that experts find that men in positions of power are increasingly opposed to hiring or working closely with women. Some are even declining one-on-one meetings with female employees.

As Pat Milligan, a gender and diversity consultant, told Bennhold: “If we allow this to happen, it will set us back decades. Women have to be sponsored by leaders, and leaders are still mostly men.”

The growing prevalence in the workplace of what is now commonly referred to as “the Pence rule”Opens a new window – a man should avoid being alone with a woman who isn’t his wife – is not a good thing.

It should be obvious that a risk-management approach to gender equality is counter-intuitive.

Mentorship is crucial to ending workplace gender inequality

Yet, mentoring can be among the most effective tools for companies to improve gender equality. These types of relationships have been vital for many women to break through the glass ceiling, according to Belle Rose Ragins, a professor at the Lubar School of Business who has studied workplace diversity for many years.

Indeed, the best mentors are those who have considerable professional experience and who are already in leadership positions. “Men typically have more power than women in most organizations.”

So what happens when these individuals avoid any type of close relationship with women at work? As Kellie McElhaney, founding director of the Center for Equity, Gender and Leadership at UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, points out: “It’s further disconnecting women from networks that we’ve already been excluded from. There are solutions, but I think right now men are a bit paralyzed.”

HR must step in

Although I may not agree with the choice by many executives to follow the Pence Rule, I can understand where it comes from.

HR must help educate all employees on what is and isn’t appropriate behavior, and coach male managers on how best to navigate one-on-one relationships with female colleagues.

HR can also organize mixed-mentorship programs in order to prevent rumors from spreading, one of the biggest fears expressed among male managers. One element of such programs can be designated areas where senior male leaders can meet with female mentees.

There are also HR tech tools to help. HR chatbotsOpens a new window  for example, will allow female staff to give real-time and anonymous feedback on specific men who make them feel uncomfortable or have crossed the line.