A New Perspective on Mentorship in the Post-#MeToo Era

By Mira Brancu, PhD

(Originally published in Psychology Today on August 11, 2019. Copyright 2019 by Mira Brancu/Brancu & Associates. All rights reserved.)

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As part of this blog series focused on new perspectives on women’s leadership, I share real stories about women’s leadership experiences and interview thought leaders who have made significant contributions to our knowledge in this field. Today, as part of my “Men as Allies Summer Series”, I have the pleasure of sharing an interview with Dr. Randall White.  

Dr. Randall White is the head of leadership in the English modular eMBA program at HEC Paris Business School, co-head of leadership for TRIUM Global eMBA, and has taught at the Johnson School of Business, Cornell University, and Fuqua School of Business at Duke University. He is the founding partner of the Executive Development Group LLC, specializing in executive leadership development for large global organizations. Dr. White has written prolifically on leadership and executive coaching, including over 100 articles and the seminal best-selling book Breaking The Glass Ceiling: Can Women Reach The Top Of America's Largest Corporations?.He earned an AB from Georgetown University, an MS from Virginia Polytechnic Institute, and a Ph.D. in social psychology from Cornell University. Among his many leadership roles, he has served as past president of the American Psychological Association’s Society of Consulting Psychology (SCP) and a Salzburg Fellow on Women’s Issues.  

After a recent interview I did on Limit Up!, a podcast by Topstep Trader focused on the trading industry,I continued to mull over some of the questions they asked. (I wrote about one of those questions in my previous post about what I learned from interviewing women leaders.)

Today’s post is about another question I kept mulling over: 

What effect do you think the #MeToo movement have on men’s willingness to mentor women? 

I gave a brief response in my interview but really wanted to know what Randy thought as well, given his work with male and female executives on a global scale. So I veered off completely from asking my standard questions and dove right into this one.

We ended up having an amazing conversation that shifted the discussion to understand the issues from a developmental psychology and family systems perspective and what it means to be an ally these days. 

I believe these new perspectives can help us really tackle the complexity of these problems in a new way.

When did it become more common or acceptable to support women as leaders in the workplace? Do you think the #MeToo movement has interfered with this progress?

I don’t know the direct effect of #MeToo on this. As a privileged white male who is a social psychologist with an anthropological point of view, I’ve noticed that most men get the message in response to having a daughter. Somewhere during their daughter’s later school career (high school, college) or later, and usually it’s in response to when the daughter faces a difficult situation where her competence or capacity to learn, grow, or change is not completely embraced by others. In the Ruth Bader Ginsburg movie, you see her experience back in the ’50s when she goes to NY to get a law position and they ask if she can type – stories like that continue to this day where women just starting out in their first career, even when incredibly accomplished, are not offered the same opportunities as someone’s son with the same background. And that’s when I see the fathers begin to get it.

Do men today get it any sooner than in previous decades?

In my classroom and in any other interactions I’ve personally had as an executive coach and consultant, I haven’t seen them getting it any sooner than that developmental transition in their family.  

Now, returning to the #MeToo question – I hear people talk about it as a barrier where men will be less inclined to want to mentor or have a close relationship with a woman or less inclined to want to help. I don’t have any data to say either way. 

But I think sometimes there may be a greater set of barriers now because it already takes a lot to develop that mentor relationship – the right chemistry, trust, etc.–and there are a lot of confounds related to power. Sometimes lines can get blurry. The act of mentoring someone is a much bigger deal than we give credence to. It’s a special relationship and there are interesting dynamics that come with it. 

You are leaning on someone as being the gateway to power, for example. Both the acquisition and the break with a mentor are emotional experiences and the break with a mentor can be a psychologically devastating act. This is described in the groundbreaking study, “Seasons of a Man’s Life.” In this work, Levinson takes a look at the fragility of the mentoring relationship. A break is a traumatic event–like a break-up. The emotional aspect of it is very complicated and when you add gender, a lot of things are involved and it can be hard to disentangle. 

All this might make people more leery about entry into that special relationship. 

Mira: Yes! You need to be in an emotionally healthy place and understand the reasons you are entering into that mentoring relationship–to have self-awareness about your needs and how that might affect the decisions you make at work with those you supervise. 

Yes. So, going now back to the original question, when men see the development of their own female child, and see her being mistreated, it’s a gateway to understanding how you can help as a mentor, and a window into the emotional aspect. Also, during this time, men enter a certain developmental time of their own lives when they are generative–when they want to give back or are thinking about legacy. If you have female children, it may happen pretty naturally. 

[If you take it a step further, this is similar to the literature on boundary violations and dual relationships between doctors and patients. I plan to write more on this perspective in a future post as I think it's worth further exploration in this new context. If you want a head start, here's a research study I worked on related to risk factors in a healthcare context - there are a lot of interesting connections I see!]

So once there is a desire to help and support through mentorship, what is the best way to support women on their leadership journey? What does it mean to "be an ally”?

If I want to help women move into leadership positions, I have to promote them into critical roles that the organization values. There are 5 challenging assignment types–I’m not going to go into all of them here, but they are related to things like getting involved in special projects, task forces, working with greater scale and scope, start-up and “fix-it”/turn-around situations, etc. Across these, men are presumed to be able to take on those assignment types, whereas women are presumed to not be able to. And it’s often done almost in a “gallant way,” like we’re looking out for them.

It’s paternalistic–we make assumptions about what women can and can’t do, that we don’t assume for men. And there are even plenty of well-meaning advocates that do this, instead of letting women decide for themselves, for example offering reasons like “well she has kids at home”. 

[Note: This is called benevolent sexism. You can learn more about that here and here.]

We haven’t had enough public conversations about what it truly means to be a good ally. Sometimes in order to feel like we’re helping someone, we may actually be hindering them. For example, one of those 5 challenging assignments I mentioned is a “fix-it” or “turn-around” assignment. It’s harder for a woman to get those. They often involve a multi-month situation, in a remote location to fix or correct a problem site or business. You often have to leave your current life behind for a period of time.

A good ally would offer the opportunity to the best qualified person, regardless of their personal situation and let them make the decision about whether they could and want to do it, rather than trying to protect them and assuming “Oh, well, she has a young family, she could never really getaway, this would be too much on her.” 

Now, I’ve also seen women pull themselves out of the running as well. So a healthy positive situation would be one in which the offer is made, and the candidate asks about whether certain accommodations could be made (e.g., family support), the mentor/sponsor responds without judging whether they can make that happen, and then allows the candidate to make the choice. 

[Note: If you'd like to read more here are two posts I wrote about how to engage in or think about those kinds of negotiations and try them out before dismissing them.]

Now, how organizations choose who to pick for promotions into higher leadership roles is based on one’s experiences across those 5 challenging assignment types. Many women get stuck in “staff” roles when they really need more experiences in both “line” and staff roles to be able to have a variety of challenging experiences. (So that I am clear, line jobs are directly tied to the profit and loss of a business unit while staff jobs tend to be advisory/support roles that, while important to the business, are not directly linked to the profitability of the organization).  

Mentors and sponsors need to be realistic and honest with their feedback and recommendations. 

If you are truly committed to being a good mentor or sponsor, you need to let women know that if they want to be considered for a higher-level leadership position, they will need to gain additional experiences in certain roles that require certain sacrifices, but that each role will teach them a different lesson in leadership that will be critical to future success. Then you need to be willing to place them in a highly challenging critical role and support them. 

Mira: Yes. Often these conversations assume men want to have less involvement in childcare or family involvement or that women are "stuck" with this which holds them back. But it sounds like your experience of male executives in your class challenges those assumptions. It all comes down to ensuring that all potentially qualified employees are offered similar opportunities and knowing that when we are offered those opportunities, we all go through a process of trying to figure out what would work best in our personal situations. 

What, if anything, has changed in the past 20-30 years since you first wrote “Breaking the Glass Ceiling” around mentorship and sponsorship of women leaders?

I expected I’d see a big shift by now–we wrote the book in 1987 and updated in 1992 and 1994 and we’ve also collected other data–but I haven’t seen the major shift I would have expected. I recently did a talk in the Middle East with 250 women in a large oil company and I still hear some of the same stories and experiences.

It may depend on the country, so it may be partly cultural, but the one thing that I’ve noticed that is different now is that western women have introduced conversations about work-life balance–they have made it okay to openly discuss these issues.  

In my Advanced Management classroom, I have noticed the conversation has changed among men regarding their leadership aspirations and considerations. Men now feel it’s okay to say, “I’m not sure I’m willing to go to the next level up” due to their uncertainty about whether the sacrifice is worth it because they are just as interested in work-life balance.

Most of these senior-level jobs do come with a 24/7 component to the commitment, and if you are concerned about that balance, whether you are a man or woman, it becomes a harder set of challenges. 

Along those lines, I’ve noticed that many women early in their career try to hide pregnancies, or not talk about their family life, so that they limit concerns about being written off from being considered “committed” to a future leadership role. Is that still a problem? How do can mentors and sponsors help them navigate this?

This is not necessarily unique to women. I have seen similar experiences and worries by people who are in marginalized groups–who feel they have to hide private lives. For example, LGBT and black colleagues. It’s an interesting dilemma: “How much of my private self do I share?” Many people who have been discriminated against think about how they show up at home versus work because they are afraid their real self could lead to bias about what they can and can’t do.

There is no one metaphor –“glass ceiling,” “mommy track,” “labyrinth”– for anyone who is excluded. In organizational life, the goal should be to find the best leaders from which the organization can learn, grow and change. When we only look to one group (e.g., white males), we miss out. We throw out a lot of talent if we define it in a very narrow way.

I believe that organizations do themselves a disservice not to look widely for talent, and to recognize that it comes in different packages. I see people written off for all kinds of reasons related to appearances – it’s the human condition [to be drawn to people who sound and look like you]. But in a successful organization, everyone must be a talent scout and bring people along who don’t look like them or act like them and who have talent–talent doesn’t come packaged in the same way each time. 

How can women also improve their chances of reaching their full potential in leadership roles if they are interested?

Cast your net widely and find as many sponsors as you can–it’s your career. If you want to lead, it’s not just a 45-degree angle. It’s slogging through a lot of sacrifices, learning by trial and error, and being willing to do that. I’d like to believe, even in the #MeToo era, there are plenty of men and women who are happy to mentor. Once you have no winning and losing politics, those people can become incredibly giving teachers–they only want to see the organization prosper and they love to spot talented people and help in their development.

To identify who these potential mentors might be, look for people who seem wise, comfortable in their own skin, can tell the truth, and want others to grow. 

In this day and age, we need a lot more people with leadership experience to help organizations and society as a whole. So I hope we can get more mentors to be willing to serve in that capacity and more women willing to lead. 

Additional References

Glick, P., & Fiske, S. T. (2001). An ambivalent alliance: Hostile and benevolent sexism as complementary justifications for gender inequality. American Psychologist, 56(2), 109-118.