A number of recent articles, both popular and academic, have fuelled concerns that fear of being accused of inappropriate behaviour is causing men to avoid being mentors to women. For example, a recent article in the International Journal of Advanced Research speaks of men in positions of power being afraid to mentor women.

It sounds logical and it may well be true, but there exists at this time no empirical evidence that this phenomenon is real, nor, if it is, how extensive it is. Nonetheless, organizations, which aim to support the career progression of talented females through mentoring would do well to ensure that the perceived risks of an intellectually and emotionally intimate relationship such as mentoring do not deter men from taking on this important role.

So what precautions can you take? Here are some practical guidelines.

  1. Don’t confuse mentoring with sponsorship. Although the two roles are often conflated in the US, they are essential incompatible, the former opening up deep and introspective dialogue, the other more often closing it down. The problems highlighted by the MeToo movement arise because of abuse of power. The more significant the “mentor’s” power and influence are in the relationship, the higher the potential for abuse. Separate sponsorship arrangements are fine – when there is no pretence that this is a learning relationship. Remember that the core of mentoring is one person using their wisdom to help another develop their own wisdom.
  2. Select mentors and mentees, who are willing and capable of co-learning. One-way learning tends to create dependencies, dependency leads to power imbalance and power imbalance creates fertile ground for power abuse. This is not just about senior men unconsciously asserting their own authority and importance. An equal problem is the mentee, who is excessively needy and is looking for a father-figure to sort out her life. In such situations, the mentor may be the one feeling abused, although his ego does not allow him to admit it.
  3. Ensure that both mentors and mentees understand their roles and the boundaries relating to them. The international standards for mentoring programmes (from the European Mentoring and Coaching Council) recognise that good practice involves sufficient understanding for each party to enter into the relationship with clarity about their responsibilities to themselves and each other. When both are aligned in their expectations of the relationship, misunderstandings are much less likely to occur.
  4. Train mentors and mentees in how to recognise, give voice to and learn from emotional discomfort. Trying to bury feelings of, for example, being patronised only makes things worse. Here’s an insightful comment from a male mentor, a senior executive: “Every now and then my mentee would go quiet and withdrawn for a moment or two. At first, I just blundered on, because I didn’t know why and I didn’t know what to say. Eventually, I plucked up courage and asked her what was going on for her in those moments. I was shocked that my words were being taken in a completely different way from what I was intending. Then I asked her how she would phrase the points I was trying to get across. We ended up creating a whole new language (new to me) that has been really helpful for me in conversations with women in my organization.” When both mentors and mentees learn how to disentangle intent from impact and explore these together, not only does the potential for misunderstanding diminish, but the quantity and quality of co-learning expands.
  5. Check in with every mentoring relationship from time to time. Ask both mentors and mentees what they find liberating and empowering; and what makes them feel the opposite. Encourage each mentoring pair to have this conversation, but also bring participants together for group sharing of how they have worked together to create truly collaborative learning relationships.

Mentoring is intended to be a “safe place”, where people can be authentic and explore issues together creatively. And that means safe for mentors as well as mentees.

copyright David Clutterbuck, 2019

Bohsle, A and Bohsle, M (2018) To do or not to do … mentoring in a MeToo era, International Journal of Advanced Research 6 (12), 1075-1077

© David Clutterbuck, 2019

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