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Advice for male mentors in the age of #MeToo

Close up of Asian man

Women receive a lot of advice on what they must do as leaders — lean in, step up, speak out, reach back, deliver results — it sometimes sounds more like a game of “Simon Says” than valid career direction.

Yes, women do need to assert more control in their careers. But one of the most powerful strategies for advancing women isn’t something a woman can do — it’s what male leaders should do: mentor and sponsor high-potential women.

In most companies, men still hold a large majority of the decision-making roles that determine which employees are developed and promoted. By mentoring or sponsoring talented women, high-ranking men can ensure their companies’ leadership teams are gender diverse and reflect a range of leadership styles.

Cautious to counsel

Polls by LeanIn.Org and Survey Monkey reveal men are less enthusiastic and less comfortable with the idea of mentoring women than they were before sexual harassment stepped to the forefront of the national conversation. Almost half of surveyed male managers are now uncomfortable participating in a common work activity, such as mentoring, working alone or socializing, with a woman.

Almost 30 percent of male managers are uncomfortable working alone with a woman — more than twice the percentage of men polled before major media began reporting on sexual harassment claims of high-profile men. Their discomfort with the idea of meeting with female colleagues outside of work has become acute: Senior men were three-and-half times more likely to hesitate about having a work dinner with a junior female colleague than a male one, and five times more likely to say they'd hesitate to take a work trip with a junior-level woman.

Companies must do more to foster mentoring by establishing boundaries that help men mentor women.

Three tactics for promoting gender-mixed mentoring are:

  • Make clear to all employees, if they work with, develop, promote, mentor or sponsor only people of the same sex, that’s discrimination.
  • Make mentoring part of the senior leaders’ job description and compensation.
  • Institute a formal mentoring program that pairs senior men with high-potential women and create related goals that can be measured.

NEW also has advice for men who recognize that businesses with gender diverse leadership teams are stronger, and, research shows, more profitable. When mentoring:

Don’t bring traditional gender biases into the mentoring relationship.

Don’t assume “She’s likely to start a family and won’t be fully committed to that challenging new role” or “Moving up would mean relocating her family; she won’t want to do that.”

Have humility; it’s a powerful leadership trait.

Don’t assume you know the challenges or barriers your mentee has faced. Many women experience similar workplace challenges and biases, but not every woman is the same. Ask your mentee about her career goals and what she believes has limited her ability to fulfill her potential.

Set your mentee up for success.

Before recommending a woman for a stretch assignment, ensure she has the strong network and support needed to succeed in her new role. Mentoring is about assisting someone to grow a career, not pushing her into a job where the most qualified, highest-potential candidate is likely to crash and burn.

Be open to learning from your mentee.

I once reported to a man whose work and leadership styles were 180 degrees from mine. I learned from him and he learned from me, as he was the first to admit. A sound mentoring relationship will help both parties grow professionally.

We will never reach gender parity or grow our businesses — if the best talent isn’t working in the right roles. That won’t happen unless men support career paths without regard to gender.

Members: Post your comments in our NEW Member Community.

Sarah Alter is president and CEO of Network of Executive Women, whose 11,000 members represent 950 companies and 105 corporate partners in 21 regions in North America.

Views expressed in blogs, posts and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and corporate partners.