If there were a simple way of ending workplace gender inequality, we wouldn’t be where we are today – still living in a man’s world.

But this lack of progress doesn’t mean there aren’t tried-and-tested strategies. One of those is pretty simple: mentoring. Researchers have found mentors can help with everything from closing the gender gap in STEM subjects to getting more women into leadership roles.

In fact, for Belle Rose Ragins, a professor at the Lubar School of Business who has been studying workplace diversity for decades, mentoring could be one of the most effective ways of achieving equality at work. “Our research has found that mentoring is one of the main strategies used by women who have made their way to the top,” she explains. “Mentoring relationships are the chisels that help women break through the glass ceiling.”

The most effective mentors are people with a wealth of professional experience, those already in leadership positions. More often than not, that means they’re men. “Male mentors are particularly important, as men typically have more power than women in most organizations,” Ragins points out.

There’s just one small problem: all too often, men aren’t comfortable taking female protégés under their wings. That’s the conclusion reached by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, CEO of the Centre for Talent Innovation. “Our research shows that some 64% of senior men avoid solo interactions with junior women because they fear rumours about their motives,” she says.

And that was before the #MeToo revolution. What started out as a hashtash used by actresses to highlight sexual abuse in Hollywood quickly spread, exposing male predators in just about every industry. While many male allies saw the movement as an opportunity to listen and better understand how they could help, some men had a different reaction, instead deciding it was safer to limit contact with their female colleagues. Fears of a backlash that would reverse all progress have quickly spread.

These concerns are based on more than just anecdotes from watercooler conversations. According to a survey commissioned by the Lean In initiative, the number of male managers who are uncomfortable mentoring women has tripled since the #MeToo movement first started back in October 2017.

For Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who set up the foundation, these findings are something to worry about. “If men think that the way to address workplace sexual harassment is to avoid one-on-one time with female colleagues – including meetings, coffee breaks and all the interactions that help us work together effectively – it will be a huge setback for women,” she wrote in a Facebook post.

But it is possible to turn this moment into positive change. As Ragins notes, these issues existed long before the hashtag; now they’re out in the open, we can actually start addressing them rather than acting like they’re not there.

“We need to get to the root of this discomfort,” she says. “Is it because the male mentor is afraid he may be sexually attracted to his female protégé? Does he fear others will misinterpret their relationship as sexual? Or is he afraid his female protégé may misinterpret his actions as sexual in nature? These questions and issues have always been present in cross-gender mentoring relationships. The #MeToo movement brings them to light and offers the possibility of meaningful dialogue that will address and hopefully ameliorate these concerns.”

Women trying to progress in their careers could be left more isolated than ever.
Women trying to progress in their careers could be left more isolated than ever.
Image: Unsplash

Are there practices and techniques that might help? Certainly. Formalizing mixed-mentorship programmes is a good place to begin, Hewlett has found. “Companies can squelch whispering campaigns before they get started by designating safe spaces where senior male leaders can publicly get together with female protégés for breakfast, lunch or coffee. By naming a specific place, companies not only explicitly encourage relationship-building meetings but make them the norm.”

If companies can do their part, it’s also important for employees to get involved. For male leaders, that means making a particular effort to provide mentorship and sponsorship to junior female staff, even if that doesn’t come naturally to them. “We tend to be drawn to people who are like ourselves and we’re more comfortable socially interacting with similar others,” Ragins says. “Although this may be a natural tendency, we need to recognize when it happens in ourselves and others, so that we can confront and change the behaviours.”

For employees lower down the leadership food chain, they need to get comfortable with (diplomatically) calling out those male superiors who tend to provide mentorship only to other men. “They may not recognize when they’re excluding women or they may be in deep denial,” Ragins says.

And if that doesn’t work? It’s a radical step that might not be available to all women, but if they can, Ragins suggests looking for mentors elsewhere. “Polish off your résumé and find a place that values you.”