I attended a TEDx event recently, where there were as many women as men, sharing not only the platform but also amongst the student community, bringing that unique energy with them. I was feeling extremely optimistic about the world. The thought that we would be ‘celebrating’ International Women’s Day soon, marking the progress that we have made not only as women, but as a society as a whole towards equality, and fairness, was not far from my mind. I had many interesting conversations about #metoo campaign and how that had been a really positive step as we press for progress.
Then I had a conversation over lunch.
This was a young gentleman who worked as an Investment Banker in the City. He told me that men are now very afraid of working with women. That he would not consider taking up a woman as a mentee.
Because he doesn’t know how to be around women anymore.
Because he couldn’t be sure of how his ‘normal’ actions were being perceived.
Because he was afraid of being accused of sexual harassment.
He had a whole lot of other reasons. But mainly that he had no incentive to mentor women. He would go through extra hassle for no rewards, and live with constant fear of being alone with them, of even looking at them in case that glance was perceived as lecherous, flirtatious, and inappropriate.
He gave me an example that just being alone in a room with a female mentee, as part of a normal one-to-one mentoring process would now make him terrified. He said that this was the general feeling among all mid-level professionals in his bank which is why they were reluctant to recruit any women.
All said off-records, of course.
I had read quite a few articles recently about how white males, and their sense of entitlement was making them afraid following the #metoo campaign, that the campaign was criminalising courtship.
This wasn’t even like this. The man in question wasn’t white nor was he talking about normal courtship behaviour. He was young, well-educated, of course, had very open and un-entitled views about several other things that we talked about. He was talking about everyday behaviour. So, this came as a huge shock to me.
I gathered my thoughts later on while I was driving back home, and considered the underlying assumptions that this person seems to be making, and the unconscious biases that he was carrying.
One, that women were being unreasonable when accusing someone of sexual harassment. Two, that they imagined things, and created problems where none existed. Three, that women might have no sense of what right or wrong behaviour is. And, above all, that some of the sexual harassment claims were unfounded.
Are men afraid of women? Or, are they just afraid of their unconscious biases and motivations?
Research by LeanIn.org showed that number of senior men who are “uncomfortable” mentoring women has more than tripled, from five to 16 percent of male managers in the US now hesitate to mentor a woman. In Australia, similarly, 25 percent of men reported to feel nervous about working alone with a female colleague. A most recent report from Davos showed that companies were now minimising contact between male executives and female colleagues, which will definitely put female employees at a disadvantage, and hamper their progress in the workplace.
Unconscious bias tends to favour the decision maker. Historically, most decisions in business and government have been made by men, and even today in many organisations, the unbalance in male-female ratio is definitely a problem. Most of the people at senior level are men, and so it cannot be left to a handful of women to mentor the next generation of women.
Isn’t it time that men stood up and took a stance against this? As a leader, and in a role that can support young women at the start of their careers, men have a responsibility to question their unconscious biases and their actions and attitudes towards women. These men can lead the way with dispelling the myths that some of these workplaces weren’t suitable for women, or that women weren’t fit enough for these workplaces. If men continue to insist on not mentoring women, then this will further increase the gender divide at the top level.
By not mentoring women, it is not only the women that will suffer the consequences. Men will not have the advantage of diversity in their mentee pool, and will therefore not grow and develop as much as a mentor, learning the unique challenges of work/life balance, and difficulties in the workplace faced by women. Mentoring an individual who is different from us not only helps the mentee, but also provides a unique opportunity for the mentor to grow as a person. If done well, a male mentor of a female mentee can be the model of a mutually beneficial and meaningful relationship, helping both individuals in important ways, and therefore helping everyone.
Research from LeanIn.org also shows that:
- People with mentors are more likely to get promoted.
- Women are 24% less likely than men to get advice from senior leaders
- 62% of women of color say the lack of an influential mentor holds them back.
To address this, there has to be an open discussion in the workplace. Self-introspection and examination of biases are very important to understand how these can hold back people from engaging openly with each other. Discussions can centre around why these fears exist and what can be done to counter them. This will be the first step towards making workplaces truly diverse and inclusive. It’s not rocket science.