#4: What do I tell men who are afraid to mentor women?

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Dear Ally Skills Teacher,

Men in senior roles, like me, have a responsibility to mentor junior women, to ensure women have a fair chance to succeed. But men have recently gotten frightened by #MeToo and are pulling back from this responsibility. I’ve had direct conversations with men about this, and I’m convinced I have to treat their fear as a serious issue. How do we reassure men that it’s safe to mentor junior women?

—Bothered by Backlash

This is a good question! A fairly common response to asking for fair and just treatment for women in the workplace is for some men to say, “Hey, I’m not used to having to worry about whether I’m harming women, and it’s too much to ask me to start now.” Your question is, how do I get these men to change their minds? The short version is, “You usually can’t,” and the long version is the rest of this post.

Sexual harassment is about power

I’ll start out by pointing out that, while men are the majority of perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault, and women are the majority of victims, people of all genders can be either the perpetrator or the victim. In general, sexual harassment and assault is about power and not about sex, sexuality, or gender: it’s about a more powerful person getting pleasure out of humiliating and controlling a less powerful person, regardless of either person’s sexuality or gender.

The reason women and non-binary people are more likely to be sexually harassed and assaulted is because systemic sexism means they usually have less power. Other groups more likely to be victims because of systemic oppression include queer people, children and younger people, disabled people, people of color, poor people, imprisoned people, and many other marginalized groups. I’ll talk about the specific situation in this question (men refusing to mentor women) in the rest of this post, but much of what I say applies in other situations as well.

Sexual harassers still have most of the power

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Before talking about male fear, let’s center the fact that most women have much higher, more realistic fear about working with men, and have no choice about working closely with men if they want to advance in their careers. The framing of “I’m afraid to work with women because of #MeToo” suggests that the victims of sexual harassment now possess the power once held by the perpetrators of sexual harassment. This is not even remotely true!

Instead, #MeToo represents a moderate increase in the number of serial sexual harassers who face relatively mild consequences for their behavior, rather than a transfer of the power they had to likely victims. #MeToo is a slight reduction in how many times a powerful executive can sexually assault their colleagues before losing their current job, or a slight decrease in their multi-million dollar exit package. Many people accused of sexual harassment return to well-compensated positions of power shortly thereafter. Despite popular belief, criminal charges and prison time are still vanishingly rare for this population, even for people who have been accused of dozens of rapes.

Some sexual predators are still too powerful to be held accountable in even the most minimal way; for example, the current president of the United States is a self-confessed serial sexual predator and is unlikely to face any consequences for this during his lifetime. If #MeToo transferred the power over other people’s careers and lives from assaulters to potential victims, we would see enormous turnover in the halls of power. Instead, #MeToo means a slight increase in the likelihood that serial predators will face some consequences for their own actions. In other words, as long as the men talking to you are not serial sexual harassers, they have little to fear from the rise of #MeToo.

Why do men say they are afraid to mentor women?

Now that we’ve set the context, let’s talk about why men say they are afraid to mentor women. Here are the major reasons I’ve encountered:

  1. They are afraid of being perceived as harassing a woman when they were not.
  2. They are afraid of a woman deliberately lying about their behavior.
  3. They don’t want to mentor women and now they have an excuse.
  4. They know they harass women and are afraid of suffering consequences.

Let’s talk about what each of these reasons means, and what your options are in each case.

Fear of being wrongly perceived as harassing

The fear of being misinterpreted as harassing a woman is the most realistic reason on this list. It’s reasonably common to mishear or misinterpret someone’s words as a sexual advance or comment when none was intended, especially when your women coworkers have likely developed hypervigilance from being the target of daily pervasive sexual harassment.

But here’s the key: misunderstandings like this are rare and usually easy to fix. In all the real-world examples I am aware of where a man was misinterpreted as sexually harassing a woman, he continued to grow and advance in his career, unharmed by having some uncomfortable conversations. Some men even gain in compassion and understanding for women when they realize why their actions were misunderstood. Given the lack of supporting evidence for this fear, to me it looks more like a form of anxiety (in the everyday nonclinical sense of the word).

The question then becomes: is fear of working with women causing this person any distress or blocking them from achieving any goals? For example, is it preventing them from living up to their values of fairness and equality, or getting in the way of their career goals? If the answer is yes, then they have motivation to work on overcoming that anxiety.

In that case, you may be able to support them by sharing information, helping them develop empathy for victims of sexual harassment, and serving as a role model. You could say, “Yeah, I understand how scary it is, to feel that your career could be derailed at any moment by a coworker accusing you of harassment. Can you imagine what it’s like to be a woman in this industry, and to have a much higher chance of having your career derailed because you were actually harassed or assaulted? I know so many women this has happened to and zero men whose career was harmed by a misunderstanding. That’s why I go ahead and mentor women anyway, since it’s really unlikely anything bad will happen to me.”

If they don’t have any motivation to overcome their fear of working with women, then it is unlikely that you can change their mind. Unfortunately, in many workplaces, men can avoid working closely with women and continue to advance in their careers without any problem, whereas women usually don’t have a choice about working closely with men. IBM tries to correct this inequity by not only making mentoring an important part of performance reviews, but also requiring that employees mentor people who are different genders and from different cultures than themselves. Consider adopting a policy like IBM’s and you may find some of these men more ready to work on overcoming their fear.

Fear of a woman deliberately lying about harassment

It’s true, in rare cases people will lie about being sexually harassed or assaulted—but they do it for a specific and limited set of reasons. The motivations of people who make false accusations about sexual assault almost always derive from one or more of:

  1. Desire for medical care, money, or other personal gain
  2. Specific mental illnesses or personality disorders whose symptoms include telling fabricated stories
  3. Seeking revenge
  4. Escaping punishment (especially from parents or family members)

Most of these motivations don’t apply when senior men are mentoring junior women in a work context. Despite popular belief, sexual harassment lawsuits are difficult to win. Someone who frequently makes up elaborate fabrications is unlikely to be believed (or hired). Revenge is unlikely to work unless the accuser has more power than the accused. Escaping punishment is about the victim displacing responsibility for sexual contact onto a less powerful person. For example, Ida B. Wells pointed out that in the post-Civil War South, rape accusations were ignored or disbelieved except when a black man was accused of raping a white woman.

Worrying about women lying about harassment is a realistic concern when the woman in question is more powerful than the man and has one of these four motivations. Sometimes a junior woman is more powerful than a senior man: for example, she may be related to the CEO, or extremely rich, or a member of the dominant race when he is not. When men have a specific, credible reason to fear mentoring a particular woman, I support them in not mentoring that woman.

Otherwise, when a powerful man shares his worries about less powerful women deliberately lying about workplace harassment, he is reinforcing a key element of rape culture: the myth that women routinely lie about sexual harassment and assault. You can try giving him the information that disproves his belief, but if he does not change his mind, you should be focusing on protecting the people around him.

Excuse to not mentor women

In this case, someone does not want to mentor women for whatever grab bag of sexist reasons they choose, but feels that there is some shame attached to expressing that directly. Now they have an excuse: it’s not that they hate women, it’s that they are afraid of the power society is giving women to, occasionally, be believed about their experiences.

The best path to changing the mind of someone like this is through shame, used properly: he currently feels ashamed about the idea that other people might see him as sexist, and it’s possible that his desire to avoid shame can be the motivation for him to change. In this case, your job is to show him that hiding his sexist opinions behind another sexist opinion is still shameful. You should also be thinking about how to protect the people around him.

They harass women and are afraid of suffering consequences

If you find out that the reason a senior man does not want to mentor women is that he regularly harasses women, then you should not bother with changing his mind and go straight to figuring out how to protect people around him. In any case, your goal should not be encouraging him to work more closely with women.

Ally skill: Dig deeper into explanations for discriminatory behavior

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A useful ally skill to develop is to dig deeper into people’s explanations for why they are reinforcing oppression. When it comes to unconscious bias, people will come up with plausible explanations for gender bias in their hiring preferences. One study author writes, “If a male applicant for the job of police chief has a formal education, a formal education is rated as important for the job. But if he lacks a formal education, its importance is downplayed. No such favoritism is exhibited toward female applicants for police chief.” In this study, each participant had a “unbiased” explanation for why they selected the male candidate, and many of them believed their own rationalizations, but the end result was that they never chose the woman candidate.

It’s important not to accept explanations for biased behavior at face value because they put the burden of proving bias exists back on the people who are the targets of bias. By exercising critical thinking about explanations for the appearance of bias, you are taking the burden off of marginalized people of discovering and naming the role of bias in the workplace.

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