Has mentoring suffered with #MeToo movement?

Study confirms reluctance of male mentors to take on female mentees

Has mentoring suffered with #MeToo movement?

As an associate professor at the University of Miami, Karoline Mortensen says she has relied heavily on mentorships in her career, from both men and women.

“I'm in a profession where almost all of my mentoring happens after hours, whether it be with male or female employees,” she says. “I travelled a lot for conferences before COVID and that's how I really get opportunities and excellent advice from my mentors. So, it's concerning that [there’s been] public information that males should be careful about the time that they spend with females.”

Mortensen is referring to the aftermath of the #MeToo movement more than four years ago, which lead to an explosion of conversation and action when it came to confronting sexual harassment and abuse — along with anecdotal reports that many men became reluctant to work closely with or mentor female colleagues for fear of being accused of such behaviour.

And in conducting two surveys to find out whether male managers were in fact modifying their mentoring and socializing practices, Mortensen and two other researchers found that “intimate interactions” were indeed a challenge as male managers were less likely than female managers to mentor or interact one on one with female employees, according to “A multivariate analysis of workplace mentoring and socializing in the wake of #MeToo” in the March 2021 issue of Applied Economics.

“I'm sure male mentors are not meaning to explicitly say, ‘Oh, I won't mentor any female,’” says Mortensen. “What we're trying to do is get it [to be] more explicit that there are these implicit biases and so, if you are contacted by a female and a male who need mentoring, make sure that you're providing both those opportunities and be careful not to overreact to the situation. Because that does put female employees in a disadvantaged position.”

Surveys of interactions

The first survey in 2018 involved more than 1,847 female employees and included questions about: mentoring by an older male colleague; working one on one in a private room with this mentor; working with a male colleague on a project after normal business hours or with overnight travel; and male and female employees working directly on projects together. In addition, respondents were asked whether their answers were different now compared to one to two years ago.

In the end, less than 11 per cent of the full sample said they are very or somewhat unwilling to be mentored by an older male co-worker, supervisor or manager. However, that jumps to 34 per cent when it comes to being mentored by an older male co-worker, supervisor or manager one on one in a room with the door closed.

An even greater proportion are very or somewhat uncomfortable having a late dinner with a male co-worker, supervisor or manager after working together on a project that extends beyond normal working hours (57 per cent) or working one on one with a male co-worker, supervisor or manager on a project that required overnight travel (53 per cent).

In addition, younger employees are less willing to be mentored by a male co-worker, supervisor or manager. They are also less comfortable working alone with a male peer in settings outside the traditional workplace.

While no social scientist would ever argue that “X causes Y” or that the #MeToo movement caused male managers to be reluctant to mentor younger female employees, the results are statistically significant, says Andrew Timming, co-author of the study and professor of HR management at RMIT University in Melbourne, “which means there's a certain probability that the relationships that we've found hold water in the wider population.”

The second survey of 203 managers included photographs of 12 potential mentees, with varying levels of attractiveness, and found that there was a preference to help those considered more attractive — both by male and female managers.

This is consistent with wider literature that tends to show that there are a number of work-related benefits to being perceived as more attractive, from higher salaries to having a stronger voice in the workplace, he says.

Making mentoring work

The positive effects of high-quality mentorship, both formal and informal, are almost immeasurable, says Timming.

“Regardless of your gender, everyone is going to benefit from having a high-quality mentor who can shape your career trajectory in a way that you wouldn't be able to on your own,” he says. “They can actually walk us through the informal rules that aren't actually written down anywhere and provide us with the insight that we need to be successful in our careers.”

But for mentoring to be effective, it should be both informal and voluntary, says Timming.

“You can't take an authoritarian approach and simply assign people a mentor because that doesn't work. It has to be part of the dialogue and a discussion, a process, so to speak, between potential mentor and mentee, rather than a framework that is imposed upon the workplace.”

Plus, a lot of women fall through the cracks with voluntary arrangements, he says, “perhaps because they're less willing to assert themselves and proactively seek out mentoring opportunities, so I definitely see value in formalizing a mentoring arrangement to ensure that everyone has access to those opportunities.”

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