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Navigating Mentorship in an Era of #MeToo

Navigating Mentorship in an Era of #MeToo

Sexual harassment is a delicate topic and there are many sensitivities to consider when discussing this issue in the workplace. Though most organizations have a zero tolerance policy, sexual harassment happens in work environments, and it typically happens to those with little power or authority.

In recent years, there has been a push to call attention to issues of sexual harassment with the #MeToo movement, slowly shifting power away from perpetrators and back to the survivors. While the movement signals progress, there have also been some professional repercussions for women in business.

Many articles have claimed that men are now afraid of engaging women in professional settings — entering mentorship relationships, taking them out for business meals, speaking to them alone in their offices with the door closed — for fear of being accused of crossing a line. Two recent surveys say that "60% of managers who are men are uncomfortable participating in a common work activity with a woman, such as mentoring, working alone, or socializing together," thereby putting professional women at a disadvantage to their male counterparts. So many career-boosting opportunities come from those types of interactions, and if women are excluded, they miss out.

In the era of #MeToo, within a culture of honest reporting of sexual harassment claims, how can organizations encourage men to continue to mentor and meet with their women employees?

Start with education. Educate male managers on why it is important to support women and how to do so effectively. Educate all employees on statistics about the gender gap in business (the gap in leadership, in pay, in promotions), and include data about the positive effects of mentorship on women’s careers. Remind men that appropriate behavior is grounded in respect, and that those who treat women like people, respect boundaries, and act from a place of mutual esteem and professional care will not be wrongly accused.

Take action. Conduct sexual harassment training at your organization so all employees, men and women alike, know what is and is not considered sexual harassment. Hold all employees accountable for inappropriate behavior and make the reporting of sexual harassment claims as pain-free as possible. Make all resources regarding sexual harassment readily available to all employees, and promote a culture of openness, inclusion, respect, and acceptance in all levels of the organization.

Maintain an anti-harassment culture. Often, when sexual harassment occurs, it's because there is a disconnect between the policies of an organization and its culture. Make sure to lead by example -- say something when a colleague makes an inappropriate joke, model appropriate mentor/mentee behavior, speak candidly about these issues and maintain an environment of openness. If the culture is truly anti-harassment, employees will feel more comfortable engaging in the kind of career-boosting mentor/mentee relationships that have been proven to help women (and all employees) succeed, without fear of repercussions.


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