August 2018
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TD Magazine

Signs of Caution Surround Male-Female Mentorships

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Male leaders are becoming more reluctant to mentor and sponsor female employees.

Widespread media reports of workplace sexual harassment have caused many employees to rethink how they approach the opposite gender in the workplace. Although some may believe this thinking is leveling the playing field between men and women at work, a recent study from LeanIn.Org, an organization focused on empowering women, suggests that isn't happening.


According to the research, the number of male managers who are uncomfortable mentoring women has more than tripled, rising from 5 percent to 16 percent. In other words, about one in six male managers may not feel comfortable mentoring a woman. Further, almost 30 percent of male managers are uncomfortable working alone with a woman, which the study says is "more than twice as many as before."

LeanIn.Org isn't the first organization to report this phenomenon. In "Unintended Consequences of Sexual Harassment Scandals," an October 2017 New York Times article, Pulitzer Prize winner Clair Cain Miller tells how senior male executives whom she interviewed "describe a heightened caution because of recent sexual harassment cases." She explains that "they worry that one accusation, or misunderstood comment, could end their careers."

These reactions may hurt women's careers. As Cain Miller notes, research shows that a lack of access to mentorship and sponsorship—which help fuel career advancement—can exacerbate the systemic barriers to moving into organizations' highest levels that women already face.


In response, one idea that LeanIn.Org recommends to men is connecting with both male and female mentees over breakfast instead of dinner and then encouraging other men to do the same. By doing so, men can avoid the unwanted optics of taking a female report to dinner, which some may associate with a romantic relationship, but still provide access.

LeanIn.Org also suggests that male leaders try to go beyond mentorship by sponsoring female employees. This may include putting women's names forward for stretch assignments, nominating them for promotions, and introducing them to influential people in their networks.

About the Author

Alex Moore is a research analyst for the Association for Talent Development. Alex returned to ATD in 2019 after spending a year living and working in Chile. Prior to moving abroad, Alex was a writer/editor for ATD working on TD magazine, a research coordinator at ATD, and a customer care advocate at ATD. He graduated from Virginia Tech in 2015 with a B.A. in English.

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