How the #MeToo Era Impacts Women’s Mentoring: New Research from Simmons

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Much attention has been paid in the media to reports that, as a consequence of the large response to the #MeToo platform for reporting sexual harassment, men are withdrawing from mentoring relationships with women. Because scholars have shown that mentoring is an essential element of women’s professional advancement, and media reports of withdrawal are largely based on men’s perspectives and responses, Simmons University researchers decided to examine the actual experiences with mentoring of women protégés in the #MeToo era in their report titled Women’s Mentoring Experiences in the #MeToo Era.

The Simmons researchers note that two large national surveys by LeanIn.org (2018) and Survey Monkey (2019) found that

  • In 2019, 60 percent of male managers in the United States reported they are “uncomfortable engaging in commonplace work-place interactions with women, including mentoring,” which is a 14 percent increase from 2018.
  • Over one-third (36 percent) of men who are uncomfortable explained that they are “nervous about how it would look” or of having their intentions misunderstood.

To understand women’s perspectives, the Simmons scholars surveyed 142 women at a 2019 women’s leadership conference and found

  • Half of the respondents were midlevel professionals from industries where most of the #MeToo dialogue has centered-finance, banking, insurance, and technology.
  • Almost three-quarters (71 percent) reported being in a mentoring relationship.
  • The majority (64.8 percent) had female mentors.
  • About one-third (35.2 percent) had mentors two steps above them.

The findings from this study were surprising.

Finding #1

Not much has changed in mentoring relationships, and some relationships have improved. The study asked questions about two primary roles that mentors play in the workplace, defined by Kathy Kram ( https://www.amazon.com/Strategic-Relationships-Work-Creating-Sponsors/dp/0071823476): career support and psychosocial support:

  • The study respondents reported no decrease in career support since the #MeToo era began, with career support remaining stable overall. Respondents did report increased activity by female mentors compared to male mentors. For example, respondents rated that their mentors “help me learn about other parts of the organization” at a rate of 50 percent for female mentors compared to 25 percent for males.
  • For psychosocial support, participants reported an increase in psychosocial support across nine of the fourteen roles. For example, 67.3 percent of respondents selected “provides support and encouragement” as one type of support, which indicates a strengthening of mentor relationships.

Finding #2

Women continue to rely on female mentors. This phenomena is not new, but the problem remains that mentors are typically more senior, and men hold greater numbers of senior positions in organizations. This means the number of senior women available as mentors is low.

Finding #3

Employees are largely unaware of what their organizations are doing to address #MeToo issues.

What needs to be done? The Simmons researchers suggest that to build a mentoring culture

  • Organizations need to require, support and reward cross-gender mentoring.
  • Organizations need to create LeanIn-like circles for men to provide a “safe space” where men can express their fears and clarify what behaviors are inappropriate.
  • Men and women need to understand the natural draw of homophily, or the tendency to feel more comfortable with others like themselves. Homophily excludes white women and people of color from access to mentorship and can impede their careers.

In conclusion, the study authors suggest their research reflects that “mentors and protégés are doing the hard work of adjusting, clarifying, and strengthening their relationships to their mutual benefit, and to the benefit of their organizations.” This seems to be primarily true between women mentors and women protégés.

Anne Litwin, Ph.D. is an Organizational Development and Human Resources Consultant, Keynote Speaker, and Author of ‘New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together.’

Originally published at https://www.annelitwin.com on March 30, 2020.

Author of ‘New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together', OD Consultant, Keynote Speaker, and Workshop Trainer

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