In the wake of the #MeToo movement, a predictable yet troubling trend has emerged. According to a recent study by LeanIn.org and Survey Monkey, the number of men uncomfortable mentoring women has tripled since last fall. The report is full of a number of other worrisome statistics as well, all pointing to the fact that men are becoming increasingly hesitant to form close working relationships with female colleagues.
The generous explanation for this trend is that men are concerned that working alone with or mentoring a woman opens the door for a career-defining misunderstanding. The less generous—and almost certainly more accurate—explanation is that many men either aren’t confident that they know what behavior is appropriate in these situations or they know full well that they often act inappropriately.
For those men who have no intention of behaving professionally, we’re all probably better off if they aren’t alone with women. But those who are simply acting out of fear, confusion or ignorance are robbing both female colleagues and themselves of valuable experiences. I have served as both a mentor and mentee for female co-workers, and those experiences have been some of the most valuable of my career.
Now, I believe that the tendency from a male perspective is to say to other men that “if you treat women appropriately, you have nothing to worry about.” But that’s not entirely true, because I have seen firsthand what I believe to be well-meaning men make comments that they think are harmless but in fact made me uncomfortable, to say nothing of the women to whom the comments were directed.
One incident, in particular, sticks out not because it was some over-the-top, flagrant incident—but precisely because it was not. I was on a conference call with a male superior and his two female associates as we tried to solve a particular problem. After explaining the problem to me, the man said something like, “And I am here with these two beautiful ladies trying to figure this out.”
Now, do I think those women were devastated by this remark? Probably not. But the fact is, a male superior should not be commenting his female colleagues’ appearance, especially when those employees are his junior; it’s just not necessary or relevant. In this particular case, I don’t believe the man was trying to make these women uncomfortable. He simply didn’t recognize that his behavior was inappropriate. In this scenario, I believe there was a generational disconnect, but I have seen similar instances with men and women of the same generation. It is instances like these, I believe that have some men spooked that they might do or say the wrong thing without even realizing it.
If you are a man backing away from mentoring or working closely with female colleagues because you are unsure about what is appropriate, you may be robbing women of valuable professional experiences and you are almost certainly missing out on fulfilling professional interactions yourself. As men, it is incumbent upon us to do the work ourselves to understand what is appropriate, rather than relying on women to tell us. So, read articles and books on this topic. Listen to podcasts. Watch TV shows. Really focus on listening to women when they are relaying their experiences. Don’t be defensive—try to be open to learning.
Because now is the time to work harder to form professional relationships with women—not to back away in fear.
Eric Lebowitz lives in Stamford, Connecticut with his wife Katie. He is the co-founder of The Forward Marketer, a digital marketing firm and official HubSpot Agency partner. He loves golf and the New York Mets.