Early this summer, Lean In – an organization dedicated to supporting women entrepreneurs and women in the workplace – and SurveyMonkey released the results of a survey of 5,182 workers in the U.S. that found male managers to be increasingly unlikely to mentor women. Conducted in late February, the survey found that 60% of male managers feel “uncomfortable engaging in common workplace interactions with women, including mentoring, socializing, and having one-on-one meetings.” This is a 32% increase from a similar survey conducted in 2018.
According to Lean In and SurveyMonkey, senior-level male executives are much more hesitant to mentor female junior colleagues than they are male junior colleagues. In fact, compared to responses in 2018, men in senior positions are now 12 times more likely to hesitate to have one-on-one meetings with junior women they work with, nine times more likely to hesitate to travel with a junior female colleague for work, and six times more likely to hesitate to have work dinners with female junior workers.
As an explanation for the disparity in how they approach junior level women and men, 36% of male respondents said they “were nervous about how it would look.”
Extreme versions of this anxiety have played out in the national news in recent months, with more attention paid to politicians invoking the so-called “Billy Graham Rule.” Famed Christian minister and personality Billy Graham very publicly had a rule that he would not meet alone with any women other than his wife to avoid suspicions about his integrity or intentions.
The rule gained renewed attention in the public sphere when Mike Pence, who adheres to it, became vice president of the United States. It again made the news this July when conservative politician Robert Foster, who was then running for governor in Mississippi, refused to allow a female journalist to shadow him unless another man was present.
In early August, a sheriff’s deputy in North Carolina filed a federal lawsuit after he was fired for refusing to train a female recruit. He alleges that his firing amounts to religious discrimination, because as a devout Christian, he practices the Billy Graham Rule.
When this rule, and the anxieties that lead to it, take hold in the workplace, women lose out.
Despite advancements in economic circumstances for women, there are still far more men in senior-level positions in many industries, meaning that there are already far fewer options for senior level women to mentor junior women or those starting their own ventures.
“Looking at the levels of women in executive leadership positions, unfortunately the percentage is lower than male executives,” Nina Roque, executive director of the National Women’s Business Council (NWBC), told the Business Journal. “While we have seen that increase in recent years, women entrepreneurs are relying on mentorship at the executive level from both men and women.” The NWBC is a nonpartisan federal advisory body to the president, Congress, and the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Roque said she read the Lean In/SurveyMonkey survey. “I think it is very unfortunate that male managers feel that way. I can understand why, but I think those male managers taking the opportunity and the time to meet with mentees – whether it’s in the government or the private sector – is really key to that specific woman’s journey to the executive level or to starting her own business,” she told the Business Journal. “It’s really unfortunate, and I hope that we can all as a society work past that.”
So what is it, exactly, that we need to work past? Well, the title of that survey points to the source of growing male anxiety about working with women; it’s called, “How #MeToo has impacted mentorship for women.”
Jacqueline Tan, president of the Women’s Business Council of the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, alluded to the issue in an interview about women and mentorship. Tan is the business development director for the American Heart Association in this region, and is also an entrepreneur, having founded an event planning company in 2012. “I obviously understand the climate and I understand the hesitation,” she said when asked about the survey’s findings. “I can see why they would feel that way from a risk standpoint. . . . I think everyone needs to be careful and professional, and we’ll be OK.”
Tan pointed out that her mentors have been crucial to her career success, and that many were men. “I was blessed with having a lot of really great mentors in my life that opened a lot of doors for me and also gave me the confidence to be able to start my own business,” she reflected.
Tan suggested that women join industry or business associations, which can open the doors to mentorship opportunities. “Joining different associations really helped my career,” she said.
Mentorship is an important steppingstone in advancing one’s career. It is crucial that we do not let fear prevent a talent pool of the more than 1.3 million Millennial women entrepreneurs (that’s NWBC’s estimate) in America from accessing equal opportunities. As we see so many famous men come under scrutiny for misconduct and abuses of power thanks to the #MeToo movement, it makes sense that men might be feeling nervous. But shutting women out and not granting them the same opportunities as their male colleagues is sexist, period. It is inequitable, it is wrong, and it prevents our society from evolving in a positive direction.
If you feel you need to protect yourself from the risk of unjust accusations of impropriety, you can certainly change how you deal with your employees – but you must make the same changes in dealing with your male colleagues. Keep your door open during solo meetings or meet in a public place. Travel in groups of three or more. Implement reasonable policies that make your workplace safer for everyone, not just yourself – and be sure you do, in fact, apply them to everyone.
And for young women out there looking to start a business or move up in their careers, both Tan and Robbie Motter, global coordinator for the National Association of Female Executives, emphasized that women should try to overcome any hesitation. “One of the barriers is they don’t want to let people know they need help,” Motter said. “They don’t realize that having the right mentor . . . can [help them] achieve their mission or goals so much faster.” Motter noted that her organization holds monthly meetings in cities across the U.S. to help women entrepreneurs connect.
Women are just as talented and capable as men. They deserve to be lifted up.