How do we create high quality cross-gender mentoring relationships? This was the key question I considered after reading about the #metoo backlash at the World Economic Forum in Davos. At the conference, we heard again how senior men are reluctant to mentor women. In the New York Times recap by Katrin Bennhold, one manager explained, “I now think twice about spending one-on-one time with a young female colleague”. What struck me most about this situation was that the fear of being falsely accused of sexual harrassment might lead otherwise well-intentioned men into sexual discrimination at work.
Developmental relationships—mentoring, coaching, and sponsorship—are essential elements of growing leaders. We learn through reflection on experience and in high quality relationships with mentors. Research has repeatedly demonstrated the advantages of developmental relationships, including increased salary, faster promotions, better performance, and more satisfaction at work.
With this background, I suggest 5 evidence-based tips for men who want to mentor women:
(1) Seek women mentees. Junior men will naturally form relationships with their senior male colleagues and even show up at their doors for help. This means senior men need to actively seek out and invite junior women to have developmental conversations.
(2) Have consistent and transparent developmental practices. Ensure that you consider equity in how and when you provide mentoring support to your mentees. Make choices that are consistent across your mentees regardless of gender, and take the lead in fostering professional dynamics.
(3) Practice empathy and asking questions. Empathy is an important leadership skill and is particularly necessary when trying to connect across differences. Ask good questions to learn about her experiences and consider how you may most effectively support her.
(4) Be open to discussing gender issues. Gender issues have been in the mainstream media for several years now. Take the time to educate yourself on typical gender issues and observe how gender may be influencing her experience in your workplace. Authentically engage in this conversation, knowing you have much to learn from her.
(5) Sponsor women and introduce them to other potential sponsors. Sponsorship—raising her visibility, supporting her for promotions, and connecting her to other senior leaders—plays an important role in who advances in organizations. Encourage other men to engage in this critical work.
To read more and see links to the research behind this advice, see my article on Harvard Business Review website, Advice for Men who are Nervous about Mentoring Women.