Chronicle of Higher Education, Why Male Mentors in the #MeToo Era Must ‘Engage More, Not Run for the Hills’:
National surveys have pointed to a skittishness on the part of some senior men to mentor young women at a time of heightened awareness about sexual harassment. As they watch powerful men get knocked off their perches, they wonder whether an inadvertent slip could jeopardize their own careers. Some are distancing themselves from female graduate students and junior professors. And that troubles educators already worried about the leaky pipeline for women as they attempt to move through the academic ranks.
If men, who dominate the senior positions in many academic departments, shy away from mentoring women, those women will miss out on opportunities to enrich their studies or advance their careers, says Kim M. Elsesser, a research scholar at the Center for the Study of Women at the University of California at Los Angeles.
"Even before the whole #MeToo movement brought such heightened awareness to the issue, many male professors were reluctant to meet alone with a female student, particularly in the evening, or have a student of the opposite sex join them for lunch or coffee or anything that could be misconstrued," says Elsesser, author of Sex and the Office: Women, Men and the Sex Partition That’s Dividing the Workplace.
On the other hand, a professor who throws up his hands and says it’s no longer safe to mentor women — either as students or junior colleagues — may be simply justifying his longstanding lack of interest in doing so.
"Guys who would use #MeToo as an excuse to not engage are probably the typical old curmudgeons you wouldn’t want mentoring women in the first place," says W. Brad Johnson, a professor of psychology at the United States Naval Academy and a faculty associate in the Graduate School of Education at Johns Hopkins.
"It’s probably not a great loss."
Johnson and David G. Smith, an associate professor of sociology at the U.S. Naval War College, tackled such issues in their 2016 book, Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women. Johnson says men may hold unconscious biases about women, seeing them "as nice, but not real leadership material, or in the grad-school context, ticking time bombs of maternity that are not as good an investment."
Compared to the workshops he and Smith offer in corporate settings, Johnson doesn’t hear as much #MeToo backlash from professors. But in STEM fields, where there are fewer women, men who mentor sometimes worry how others view the time they spend alone with junior women.
If they’re feeling somewhat sidelined by the national discussions about sexual harassment, Johnson says, "the one thing men can do to demonstrate that they have their female colleagues’ backs is to engage more, not run for the hills."
Surveys that have focused more on corporate than academic culture have found that too many men are heading for the hills. ...
Even when men agree to take on female mentees, unintended slights can occur. Mentors who are hyper-aware of their behavior sometimes unintentionally treat women with more formality while developing more chummy connections with men. Taking a protégé to a baseball game or on a fishing trip is no big deal if he’s a man, but could potentially raise eyebrows if she’s a woman, some fear. The same holds true for asking mentees about their personal lives — something a mentor might not hesitate to do if a man was struggling. Researchers whose field work takes them to remote locations might balk at bringing along a junior woman, particularly given the federal government’s recent threats to yank funding from sexual harassers.
The differences matter, because when it comes time to ask for letters of recommendation, a student who’s forged a close personal connection with a professor might receive a more enthusiastic endorsement. The dynamics, of course, can change when the professor or the mentee is gay and the same concerns about inappropriate entanglements are raised.
"Mentor relationships often develop like friendships, and you don’t get that opportunity if you’re on guard and watching your behavior," Elsesser says. "But it’s a double-edged sword." To the extent that a little more formality stops offensive behavior, it’s a good thing, she says, but when it means that women aren’t getting the same access as their male counterparts, it’s bad.
Some people complain to her that women can’t have it both ways; they can’t tell men to behave more cautiously around them but then object that they’re feeling left out.
Elsesser doesn’t buy that. "We can have it both ways," she argues. "We can figure out where the lines are so women can have a safe place to go to work where they are not sexually harassed, but at the same time, have good working relationships" that will help them reach parity with men.