Men at Work: We need men to mentor women in the workplace

One of the challenges of initiatives regarding promotion of women in the workplace is that it can feel like a chicken and egg problem. Studies show that women in positions of power are more likely than men to hire and promote other women. And there are obvious reasons for women to mentor women. And in the era MeToo, it seems a particularly dicey time to encourage men to mentor women in the workplace. But as I wrote in a prior post about the challenges of female leadership, just 7% of the CEOs in the FTSE 100 are female. And even if you expand that to women in the C-suite, and leadership more generally, the numbers are far too small for women to promote other women, on their own. Not to mention, of course, they already have a day job at the company. It simply isn’t fair to ask an underrepresented group to be burdened with the task of increasing their numbers. 

One path to gender diversity is for more men to mentor women in the workplace. Here’s how and why:

1) Bosses or Buddies

To really help women, start with the men. Look at your male colleagues, especially the peers of the women you want to mentor. One mental shift is to stop thinking of them in terms of people that you like, on a personal level. They’re not your current drinking buddies; they’re your daughter’s future boss. This is not to say you should look at female colleagues like daughters. They are not children. And certainly not yours. To treat them as such would be as offensive and counterproductive as looking at them as potential dates. 

But, what can be a useful lens is looking at the behaviours, practices, and core values of your company and considering whether it’s the sort of place you’d want your daughter (or niece, or sister) to work in. Would you want her to be the subject of that “harmless” off-colour joke? Even if she wasn’t in the room, how would you want her performance or potential discussed in that way? Depersonalisation makes the intolerable appear less ugly. Just moving the filter from a “pure work” mode to what would you want for a loved one, can drastically change what you let yourself justify or ignore.

2) Don’t do it differently

That is, don’t mentor your male mentees in a way that you can’t replicate with women. That probably means no going out for a gin-soaked night. Maybe not an afternoon of golf, or skeet shooting, or. . .you get the point. Take everyone for a coffee, instead of a beer.

3) Bring a wing man

Bringing another man along — just one — can clarify that the invite for a coffee or lunch is strictly professional. You could bring along a woman, obviously, but the whole point is that women in positions to lead are already stretched. Having a third person avoids the discomfort of a one-on-one, which can create the appearance of impropriety. And that can scare well-intentioned men away from mentoring women. But the optics can be improved greatly by simply having another person present to shift the dynamic. 

4) Don’t miss out the middle

When it comes to women employees, they can need mentoring much further into their careers than their male counterparts. According to a professor at Kellogg Business School, women in the middle of their careers can be the most in need of a mentor to get them to the next level. They are usually at that point in the crossroads between the next significant step up the career ladder and starting or raising a family. Finding ways to help them navigate both might seem particularly foreign to men who don’t face the physical or social realities of bearing children, but it’s one of the most critical points in time for women. Many are just as ambitious as men in the organisation and have also put in 10 or 15 years building their career, only to face the most acute gender-based challenges of their professional lives.

There are a number of ways for men to mentor women in the workplace. 

It’s tempting to play it safe, or even think that, as a man, you simply cannot be helpful in trying to understand the challenges for women. But if we’re being honest, that can be an excuse for not being part of the solution. The next time you ask a female executive to take a woman colleague under her wing, think about the pressure you’re putting on her. Instead, ask her for tips on how you can be that support instead.  Waiting for more women to ascend the ladder in order to help others is a circular, and self-serving, logic. And it’s the women who are already in the workplace, but still aspiring to the upper ranks, who suffer. Men have both the knowledge and the tools to help, and no excuse not to. 

Robert Kovach is the Director of Leader Success for Cisco’s Leadership and Team Intelligence Practice Area. He has been an advisor to leadership teams of Fortune 500, FTSE 100 and FTSE Global 500 companies on driving business strategy through executive leadership effectiveness and organizational agility. The opinions expressed in this blog are his own and not those of Cisco. Contact him for speaking enquiries.

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