In December 2016, Harvard Business Review ran a fabulous article by David G. Smith and W. Brad Johnson titled, “Men Can Improve How They Mentor Women. Here’s How.” I loved it.
It was straight forward, honest, and stuffed with scientific data and analysis that promotes one fabulous conclusion: More men should mentor women, and if they’re using the whole sexual attraction thing to excuse why they don’t, they need to get over themselves.
The article began with two perfect examples:
“Last year, Nobel scientist, Tim Hunt remarked that he had trouble working with “girls” because “three things happen when they’re in the lab; you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry.”
Of course, the media later ‘read him to filth,’ to quote my favorite YouTuber Jeffree Star, but you get the idea: Me, male big wig, refuse to share knowledge with she, small/potential female big wig because she has breasts and higher levels of prolactin – a hormone responsible for tear production.
The second example dealt with congressional staffers and the unwritten rules that exclude and marginalize them. Female aides are apparently restricted from participating in one-on-one sessions with male members of Congress. That includes meetings, driving and out-of-office events. Why? “Out of sensitivity to the politician’s wife or to protect a congressman from allegations of sexual harassment.”
I get the protection against sexual harassment – we live in a litigious society – and I suppose it’s lovely to know that lawmaker’s spouses are so highly regarded inside the political workplace. But is it right that “in both of these examples, junior women – a distinct minority in both scientific research and politics – pay the price”?
I suppose I shouldn’t be shaking my head that such antiquated, trumped up excuses are being touted as policy – I do cover diversity – but it’s infuriating because the same people who espouse these faux-policies are often the same talent decision-makers who – when their feet are put to the fire – complain vociferously about the lack of female leadership talent. It’s these Tim Hunt-thinking males who are key stakeholders when it comes time to award promotions, raises and learning opportunities.
The article points out three things I think men who are considering mentoring women need to pay attention to – if they’re interested in pesky but terribly important things like knowledge sharing, competitive advantage and creativity in the workplace.
1. Sometimes women cry at work. Get over it. You’re not the green, evil witch in The Wizard of Oz. Those tears won’t melt you. Earlier I mentioned prolactin. That’s a real thing. Further, while brain scans and such indicate that men and women actually experience similar levels of emotion when stimulated, women have been socialized to express that emotion differently. “Women are better at reframing negative emotions using positive feelings whereas men use less neural activity in responding to emotionally-laden stimuli and are more inclined to control, even mute, emotional express…Rather than run for the exit at the first teardrop, confident mentors stock up on Kleenex, take emotion in stride, and get on with the business of championing promising women.”
2. Sometimes women need a bit of a boost. That’s okay too. Confidence is an important asset for successful mentoring relationships, work scenarios of all kinds, hell, it’s necessary to live a good life. But women have not historically been socialized to be confident. Men, on the other hand, “are often socialized to over-estimate and over-report their potential and subsequent achievements.” Some might call that lying, but that’s a discussion for another blog. The key takeaway here is, you male mentors out there may need to coach your female mentees to own their contributions and accomplishments, and advise them how to express these in ways that will produce the results they want.
3. As for the sex thing, sometimes men and women are attracted to each other. Sometimes they’re not. Either way, men, employ a bit of self-control and perspective, alright? And know, “research suggests that men are more likely to be attracted to their female friends than those female friends are to be attracted to them.” Further, when you feel some type of way about someone who you work or interact with closely, you are more likely to mistakenly feel they feel some type of way about you. “Time to face facts, gentlemen: if you’re attracted to a woman at work, there’s a very good chance she’s not equally into you.” Boom. And this sentence was borderline masterpiece: “A man’s evolved frontal lobe – should he choose to use it – allows judgement, prudence, self-regulation and impulse control.” To sum it up Kellye-style, you may want to, but don’t squeeze the Charmin. Keep it professional.
The article ends by pointing out all the business benefits associated with successful male-female mentoring relationships: more promotions, greater job satisfaction, higher salaries and organizational commitment, higher level career mobility, to name a few.
It comes down to this. Male-female dynamics in a mentoring relationship could get sticky. They could go horribly wrong. But if expectations are set in the beginning, both parties keep things on the level, and agree to exercise some common sense, non-intrusive precautions to avoid misunderstandings, there’s no reason men can’t mentor women. Unless, of course, like Tim Hunt you believe men and women at work is all about hearts, flowers, illicit supply closet romps, red eyes and flying snot?