Mentors…the subtle sexism that may keep women from finding one

I don’t mean to go political. Today, a political discussion only causes divisiveness when what we all need is to come together and work things out. That said, the following (political) tweet caught my eye last week:


If you are not aware, apparently Mr. Pence’s rule states that he does not have meetings alone with women. Social media has had quite a bit to say about this tweet, not the least of which is the obvious insinuation that men cannot help themselves from abusing and harassing women. We all know this is false, and patently unfair. It would not be a stretch for me to say that nearly every single male colleague I have worked with in the past 10 years has been respectful and has caused me no concern or anxiety that I was putting myself in a dangerous position. I realize I am one of the lucky ones. I also realize the ridiculousness in claiming “luck” in this situation.

That isn’t to say I have been immune to this kind of culture. Just one example: In my first job out of school, I was physically assaulted by a male colleague at work (he breathed heavily on my neck and grabbed me in an inappropriate place). When I reported it (I didn’t know to do anything differently), my career took a sudden downturn. I became a “difficult” employee; someone who had to be ‘handled’. Needless to say, I didn’t last long there, and learned a lesson along the way. That lesson is not the point of this particular post.

The problem with this tweet I want to discuss here is something that goes deeper. There is an insidious underbelly to this tweet that not only paints men as lacking control, but creates a distance between men and women workplace. It creates a difference where no difference exists, or is even appropriate.

In my research, and the research of many others, it is clear that one of the most important components of success in climbing the career ladder is having a strong, supportive mentor. In recent interviews I conducted with successful female leaders in my industry, I heard the following:

“Luckily I have a boss who is now really invested in my future and sees a lot going for me and I would say I am one of the lucky ones. I am one of the ones who is going to be put in a good position in certain roles and will continue developing.”

“I would say that [my mentor] is the number one reason for helping me get ahead.”

Because a mentor must, necessarily, be someone higher up the corporate ladder, many times mentors are men. And, because mentoring is a rather personal endeavor, the most effective mentorship conversations take place one-on-one. If men cannot be trusted to be alone with women, or choose to never be alone with women, we have cut off the possibility of a mentorship. We loose this critical opportunity to support and develop women.

Here is a real life example of this. Quite some time ago, I had a young woman working for me who wanted to take her career in a new and different direction. As it happened, this new direction was a great fit for what our organization needed at the time. The only problem was that she needed some specific experience under her belt to be effective. We had one gentleman in the office who was doing some of this type of work, and clearly would be a great informal mentor for her. The only problem – he refused to meet with her one-on-one, and refused to take her with him to an important company meeting out of town, citing his unwillingness to be alone with a ‘young woman’.

After much deliberation and scrambling, I was finally able to make this happen for her by finding the funds for another person to travel with them to the meeting. What a ridiculous situation to be in. To this day, I am not entirely certain of the gentleman’s motivation behind his refusal, but it rang in the same discordant tone as the tweet above.

In case this isn’t yet clear: Men, you are not helping women by avoiding meetings with them. Women need mentors to get ahead in the workplace. Men will, oftentimes, need to be those mentors. All that is needed to make this happen is decency and respect.

Keep it positive! And smile!

Happy Wednesday!