Why Male Mentors in the #MeToo Era Must ‘Engage More, Not Run for the Hills’

By Katherine Mangan JUNE 06, 2018

Afew years ago, David M. Yousem thought nothing of having a closed-door mentoring session with a young female scientist. Now, he asks if she would be more comfortable with the door open or closed.

A naturally effusive person, he knows better than to compliment a woman on her springlike attire or to offer a congratulatory hug for a paper that’s been accepted in a prestigious journal when a thumbs up will do.

For Yousem, a professor of radiology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, such precautions are "fairly simple and appropriate" adjustments he’s happy to make as a male mentor in the #MeToo era.

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.


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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.

The ‘Pence Rule’

A survey conducted this year for the women’s-empowerment group Lean In found that the number of men who are uncomfortable mentoring women has more than tripled, rising from 5 percent to 16 percent, since the recent media coverage on sexual harassment.

And in a poll conducted last year for The New York Times, about a quarter of the respondents said private work meetings with colleagues of the opposite sex are inappropriate. Nearly two-thirds said people should take extra caution around members of the opposite sex at work. An extreme example of such nervousness was the U.S. vice president, Mike Pence, who told The Hill that he won’t dine alone with a woman other than his wife. Critics of the #MeToo movement, including conservative bloggers, predicted that fear of crossing some invisible line would prompt others to follow what became known as the "Pence rule."

That could exacerbate problems that predate the current national discussion. That’s because faculty members are already more inclined to mentor male students — particularly white men — than women or minority students, some researchers have found. In one study that involved emails from supposed doctoral students, faculty members were much more likely to respond to requests for guidance from people with names that were easily identifiable as male and white.

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 fundingfrom 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.

Burden Falls to Senior Women

Andrea S. Kramer writes and speaks about gender-based discrimination alongside her husband, Alton B. Harris. Both are adjunct professors at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law.

"Women need to be assured the same opportunities to advance in their careers as men," says Kramer. "This includes being mentored by senior men in their departments without the fear of predatory or inappropriate conduct." At the same time, she says, "Men cannot refuse to mentor young women because they fear allegations of sexual harassment."

If they do, the burden falls to the relatively small number of senior women in the department who may already be spread thin.

One way to overcome such reluctance is for universities to require senior men to mentor young women, Kramer says. Her husband, Harris, agrees that formalized mentor programs that come with an expectation of private, one-on-one meetings could remove some of the discomfort a senior man might feel working with a junior female colleague or graduate student.

"One of the drawbacks, given the reaction to the #MeToo movement, is that men of good will are hesitant to become involved in situations where there could be any suspicion that something improper is going on," Harris says, "It’s not politically correct to mention, but I think there’s a female sensitivity to behavior that, while it may be flirtatious or inappropriate, is a long way from predatory."

Mentors may opt to meet their mentees in groups, or over coffee instead of a beer. "If the complaints we’re hearing from women on their way up are correct," Harris says, maybe that’s a necessary step.

‘A Message of Mistrust’

Double standards can be hard to avoid. Take, for instance, the question of whether to leave the door open or closed during one-on-one meetings. The cautious approach is to leave it at least partially open, but that shouldn’t be influenced by the student’s gender, says Jonathan A. Segal, a partner at the Duane Morris Institute, which advises colleges and businesses on harassment and other legal issues.

Opening it only when meeting with a woman could send her the message that the professor is worried she’s going to claim something untoward happened, Segal says. That also creates barriers to confidential discussions. "If you send a message of mistrust," Segal says, "that creates mistrust."

Some faculty members are changing their behaviors in subtle ways, like ditching the office couch for a couple of comfortable chairs and a table. If a student breaks down crying, say, over a prolonged bout of writer’s block, a mentor may be less likely to offer a reassuring hug.

Sometimes, the lines are obvious. If you’re meeting with a protégé at a conference hotel, Segal says, "stay out of the hotel room. That’s why there are lobbies."

Anne Hedgepeth, director of federal relations for the American Association of University Women, says this is a good time to reassess mentoring practices.

"I don’t think it’s a bad thing for everyone to be evaluating the practices or tactics they put in place to guide and support students," she says. Mentors, she says, should look at their own unconscious biases about what they expect from men and women and should make sure they’re building relationships that are "professional and respect the boundaries of their mentees."

Yousem, the Johns Hopkins radiologist, has helped lead a Master Mentor program at Johns Hopkins that was started on the premise that not everyone is good at mentoring and that those who are should be encouraged and supported. Participants have to be nominated and attend up to 12 hours of workshops on giving meaningful feedback, handling conflicts, and encouraging growth and risk taking. They in turn agree to help their colleagues become better mentors.

Asked what advice he would give another senior man who is uncertain about the appropriate way to mentor a woman today, Yousem, who is also an associate dean of professional development, advises following common-sense rules and being more self aware. The rewards of mentoring, he says, are worth the added reflection. "There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing a faculty member — be it a man or woman — take medicine and the profession further than me." Some faculty members whose careers he helped nurture are in positions now, he says, "where I could turn to them as mentors."

Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at katherine.mangan@chronicle.com.