Men Mentoring Women: 8 Healthy Boundaries In The Age Of #MeToo

by Dec 22, 2017

Men mentoring women builds trust and shapes careers

Mentors are essential in the workplace, and many men have a lot to offer junior workers. This doesn’t need to change, but it is healthy to keep boundaries in mind.

Oh, no. Not Matt Lauer! Did Russell Simmons just step down#MeToo continues and seems like a slow-motion movie that plays on and on.

There is a toxic vibe in the air in Hollywood, Wall Street, and on Capitol Hill—weary HR executives abound. According to an ABC News-Washington Post poll, over 33 million US women have been sexually harassed and 14 million abused in work-related incidents.

I have been very fortunate to have had phenomenal mentors and sponsors, both men and women. One male leader gave me two life-changing “breaks,” including his own job when he left the company we worked for. He still mentors me decades later. I have always felt a debt to him to pay it forward and help others, especially those getting their corporate sea legs.


Male mentors are common and necessary

In facilitating mentor training sessions, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with executive women in almost every industry. Most share with me that men, in particular, mentored them. Men were often in higher positions of power, generous with their time, and willing to make key introductions.

In the wake of #MeToo, will men pull back on mentoring and championing because they are afraid of being inappropriate? Fear the perception that they’re having an affair with their mentee? Decide only to mentor [or hire] other men? That would be a massive setback.

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“I would now tell men to just not do it [mentor women],” said Darren, a male entrepreneur I had coffee with yesterday as we discussed this article. “It’s too dangerous now with all the toxicity out there. You have to be ultra-careful and conscientious with what you are saying.”

As I read Matt Lauer’s apology as the latest #MeToo man of the hour, I decided that it was time to write this piece on healthy mentoring boundaries and say to men that we absolutely need you as mentors and champions. To the extent that they are relevant, remember to follow these same, simple rules with men you mentor, as well. Teaching them to pay-it-forward will help drive a positive, equitable mentoring culture at your organization.

Here are eight recommendations for men mentoring women:

1. Just say no.

If you have a history of being accused of sexual harassment or sexual violence, you probably should find other ways to add value to the world. Don’t mentor one-on-one if you or your HR team feel concerned. If you are in a leadership role or management role, consider mentoring through public meetings with your team or small groups of diverse people. If you are feeling a strong physical attraction to a mentee, help her find another mentor.

2. Meet in public.

Yeah, hotel rooms are a no-go for any and all mentoring. Meet your mentee at Starbucks, in a glass-walled conference room at work, or have a great lunch at the new restaurant that opened up. Keep the relationship professional.

3. Appearance and aspirations.

As a general rule of thumb, keep the focus on your mentee’s goals and aspirations. It’s ideal to have the mentee share two or three goals that are the focus of the mentoring relationship. I would keep comments about your mentee/mentor’s appearance to a minimum, for example, “You look very professional today,” or “that’s a nice outfit.” Positively “mirroring” your mentee’s accomplishments and efforts, and sharing empathy in times of challenge, are most welcomed.

4. Ask if you are unsure.

Ask your colleagues to help you understand what is okay or not okay. Ask for mentoring feedback. A lot has changed over the past several decades and you need to be up to speed. Something that was accepted as a compliment years ago like “spin around, let me see your new dress,” might be perceived as a threat today.

5. Talk about your family.

My mentors have been family men, and I am a family woman. They invite me to dinners or events with their kids and vice-versa. They ask about my husband Marc and how my daughter is doing every time we connect. This builds lifelong friendships and trust. On the flip side, I had a potential major client behave very inappropriately after a colleague and I met with him. I used the “happily married” response following a barrage of flirtatious texts that he sent following the meeting. In discussions with eight women friends, many single, we decided a clearly stated “I do not mix business with pleasure,” was a simple option to shut down these types of advances right away.

6. Keep it about professional growth.

In a professional mentoring situation, I would suggest 80%–10%–10%.

  1. Focus 80% of the conversations on things that will help your mentee professionally. Share from your own experiences and learning.
  2. Spend 10% on life, the weather, family, skydiving last weekend or what you did over vacation.
  3. The remaining 10% goes to other topics that you feel qualified to assist each other with or other shared interests

7. After eight is too late.

Alcohol and mentoring are just not a great combination. Dinners and bars one-on-one are not ideal. I know I wouldn’t want my husband’s colleagues seeing me out for dinners with a male mentor(s)/mentees, so I opt for lunch, coffee, or a group event if I am at a conference.

8. That’s someone’s kid or wife.

Remember your mentee is someone else’s daughter (or son), mother or wife. It is such a huge honor to be able to mentor someone else’s family member in the world of work and more. How would you want a mentor to treat your own daughter or son? I often think of mentees as a little brother or sister, a niece, someone I care for and want to see grow. She does need and value your advice. It’s an incredible gift with a lifelong impact. It’s a sacred trust.

If you feel uncomfortable at the idea of having a male mentor, maybe you should look at getting a female mentor? 3Plus offers mentoring services with neutral, senior women with experience.

By Julie Kantor.

MARC Subscriber
Men Advocating Real Change (MARC) is a community for men committed to achieving gender equality in the workplace.

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