Navigating innuendo – challenges for male mentors

Common challenges for male mentors when they mentor women

It is essential that we acknowledge the challenges for male mentors and that they may need a different approach to mentoring men.

Male mentors certainly need some coaching to build awareness of some of the challenges they may face when they mentor women. With a disproportionately low number of women in senior roles to mentor women, it falls on male leaders to step up and take over the mentoring function. Many potential male mentors are willing and open, but without basic training they simply don’t understand the real issues that impact women in the workplace. The mentoring process is about “walking in someone’s shoes,” and clearly male mentors have not faced the same challenges as women. What tends to happen is they endorse and further embed male coded ideas and practices. Why wouldn’t they? It’s all they know.

So how can that gap be filled and male mentors be brought up to speed?

For the first time in history, men and women occupy the workplace in almost equal numbers. Women are increasingly ambitious for senior roles. Also for the first time, men have to deal with women as colleagues and reports, rather than as wives, mothers, sisters or any other female relationship. This causes a number of difficulties and everyone ends up trying to skirt around the issues. There are real challenges for male mentors when mentoring women.

The Harvard Business Review in December 2016 focused on challenges centered around the usual stereotypical thinking:


challenges for male mentors

Rumors of mentor romances may be greatly exaggerated.

Sexual attraction and gossip can occasionally be an issue, where a junior woman does indeed lust after a senior man. However, research from JUMP and Axiom Consulting report that a whopping 80% of women experience sexism in the workplace on a daily basis. 23% report direct sexual harassment. So the likelihood of that happening to men is frankly slim. The authors of the HBR post do finally get round to suggesting that she’s probably “not that into you.”

Gossip is something women also fear. The best way of handling that is to conduct all mentoring sessions in a public space and during office hours. One female participant at a workshop shared how her male mentor wanted to have their mentoring session in a spa. As in a getting naked spa. The answer has to be to firmly decline and, in the context of a formal programme, to report that suggestion to the programme organiser. But many women fear reprisals if official action is taken and instead simply end up gossiping about “office letches.”

Read: 4 mentoring myths that cause confusion


challenges for male mentors


You may have to deal with some tears.

Yes really. Men worry about women crying. If men are properly trained, there is nothing that should happen in the context of a mentoring relationship that should reduce the mentee to tears. That said, the issues that women confront in the workplace including sexism, exclusion, loss of opportunity and voice, as well as bullying can be upsetting. It’s also not just about women. There is a science based note. Research from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, suggests that when women cry, men’s testosterone levels drop significantly. An article in the New Scientist indicates that:

Tears of sadness contain a chemical turn-off for men. Like animal tears, human tears may influence the behaviour of others by smell alone.”

In an alpha, male-coded environment this causes high levels of discomfort. I do know many men who worry about this greatly which is why it is considered to be one of the major challenges for male mentors.

There is a big divide on crying in the office. Personally, I am against all forms of extreme emoting of any kind in the workplace and crying is only one of them. Yelling, throwing things, door slamming and so on come into that category. Crying is not appropriate unless there is a genuine crisis (death, loss or other emotional challenge). For any men mentoring women when faced with a tearful employee, the response would be to give her a Kleenex, wait for it to slow down and stop, establish the trigger and reframe the experience. Physical contact of comfort would be ill-advised and could be mis-construed. Bringing in the support of another woman would also be helpful at that point.

Read: Why men don’t like women crying in the office 


male mentors

You have to be conscious of the bias women face

This is the one area which many discussions on male mentors do not cover. All men mentoring women need to have training on unconscious bias and how it impacts women in the workplace. Many are oblivious to the customs, practises, codes and behaviours that they take for granted which serve men well, but are barriers for women. They expect to have a transactional connection with their mentees related to promotion positioning, network introductions and even the transfer of skills and knowledge. That is they expect to treat them like male mentees. But women often need more support on navigating male-coded cultures and politics. Men are unfamiliar with the unstated messages and the unwritten signals that women face on a daily basis in the workplace. Navigating innuendo and interpreting ambiguity and nuance are some of the biggest challenges for women in their career. Men may not understand that – and why should they? It is their world usually. They live in the obvious.

Very often the challenges facing women in the workplace are also influenced by outside factors which for men are not primary considerations, although that is shifting. Men can also have different communication styles and perspectives to women that require insight that men don’t always have. Younger generations expect more nuanced and less gender stereotyped responses. As male mentors are usually older, they need support to adjust to these cultural changes accordingly.

Read: Top 5 videos that highlight and tackle unconscious bias

It is not enough to expect senior men mentoring women to do so without training. When I have trained groups of men they are surprised at the sub-text to some of the issues. Many push-back at situations and concepts that are unfamiliar. Changing mindsets and behaviours developed over a lifetime will not change over night. It needs time and professional input. But any challenges for male mentors are surmountable! It’s just a question of  training and experience.

If the male mentors in your business need training Contact 3Plus now!

3Plus, 3Plus online e-Gazine for professional women, Female Talent Pipeline, Mentoring, Unconscious bias
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Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she joins the dots between organisations, individuals, opportunity and success.

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