Although the #MeToo movement traces all the way back to 2006, it gained worldwide exposure in October of 2017 when the hashtag went viral on social media.
For those who are unfamiliar, the hashtag was originally used by women who experienced sexual harassment and assault in the television and film industries. But, after gaining international attention, the initiative ignited a long-overdue examination of sexual misconduct and gender discrimination across all industries and walks of life.
For many men in management positions, however, the message behind the movement seemed to have missed its mark. In fact, a recent study by LeanIn.Org looked at how workplace behavior has changed in the wake of #MeToo.
Survey findings revealed that 60% of men in management positions admitted to being uncomfortable performing common workplace activities such as mentoring, working alone, or socializing with women for fear of being viewed as inappropriate (source).
Those findings suggest men in the workplace believe the solution to sexual harassment is to simply lessen their interactions with female colleagues. Unfortunately, this misguided belief ignores the underlying systemic factors that allow men to maintain higher-level positions, while making it incredibly difficult for women to achieve professional growth.
Today’s blog post examines these findings and demonstrates why equitable mentorship is crucial to fostering a safe and inclusive work environment with equal opportunities for men and women.
#MeToo and Gender Bias in the Workplace
The Harvard Business Review conducted a study pre- and post-#MeToo to gain a quantifiable understanding of how the movement impacted workplace dynamics. Their findings showed that while sexual harassment has declined, there has been a measurable increase in hostility towards women.
Originally, the goal of #MeToo was to destigmatize the experiences of people of all genders and empower them to speak up about unsafe work environments. Although the initiative called attention to many blatant acts of sexual misconduct, small acts of gender bias still run rampant in the workplace.
For example: You’re a woman, and your male boss loves to golf. A group of men from your team recently joined him for a golfing trip — which no one thought to invite you on (“Girls don’t like golf!”) During this trip, your male colleagues get ample time to develop closer relationships with their superiors, which can lead to professional growth opportunities down the line.
While this is not sexual harrassment or overt gender discrimination, it is an example of gender bias — one that can result in lost opportunity for women to network and advance their own careers.
The Importance of Workplace Mentorship
It’s a fact, not an opinion, that women don’t receive the same mentorship opportunities as men. In fact, women are 24% less likely than men to get advice from senior leaders. Additionally, 62% of women of color say that lack of an influential mentor holds them back at work (source).
A lack of workplace mentorship doesn’t just hurt women, but entire organizations. Let’s look at a few specific benefits of mentorship in the workplace.
1. Streamline employee education and development.
Nearly 80% of learning is informal (source). That is, a majority of learning occurs through on-the-job training and mentorship, rather than through formal education. Mentorship enhances knowledge-transfer that helps propel employees forward in their careers. This kind of ongoing, informal education is more efficient than formal education — because it enables employees to receive personalized, job-specific education tailored to their own workplace development and career goals.
2. Reduce turnover rates.
Mentoring programs are proven to reduce employee turnover — one study found that employee retention increased by 13% among employees who have just one mentoring relationship (source).
In addition to the aforementioned learning and development benefits, a mentor also provides a mentee with a listening ear for them to express their frustrations and concerns. This support system results in happier, more engaged employees, which is a key contributor when it comes to employee retention.
3. Create a learning culture.
Mentors provide mentees with leadership skills that prepare them to naturally advance into management positions with minimal training. Not only does this incentivize employees to stay with a company, but it also fosters a learning culture that can permeate an entire organization.
Employees who receive mentorship trust that their employer cares about their career growth and development. When employees feel like their future is being invested in, the result is a more collaborative, supportive, and overall healthier company culture.
3 Steps to Promote Equitable Mentorship
In this section we review four actionable steps companies can take to promote a safe, diverse, and inclusive workplace.
1. Enforce clear policies on sexual harassment and gender bias.
First and foremost, you must put official policies in place to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all employees. Most employees are protected under their civil rights when it comes to discrimination based on gender, but it is important that a company has outlined clear and comprehensive policies when it comes to harassment and gender bias.
To establish a set of policies is a step in the right direction, but you must also make sure your employees understand them and have faith in your company’s ability to take action when these policies are violated. Detailed and strict policies will ensure that employees feel safe and protected at work, while also sending a message that inappropriate behavior will not be tolerated under any circumstances.
2. Establish a mentorship training program.
By embedding a formal and structured mentorship program within your workplace, you ensure that both men and women receive equal opportunities for career growth. Here are some steps to consider when implementing an official mentorship program:
- Define the structure of your program.
What is the timeline for each mentor/mentee relationship? How often will mentors and mentees meet? Will they attend formal sessions, or work together on their own time? Who will be charged with checking in on mentors and mentees to ensure the program is working for everyone? There are no right and wrong answers to these questions — but make sure to create a specific structure for your program so that it doesn’t fall by the wayside when other priorities pop up.
- Train mentors and mentees.
A formal mentorship program might be unfamiliar to your employees, so it’s important to provide ongoing training for both mentors and mentees. Consider training employees on topics related to building trust, respecting boundaries, and offering constructive feedback.
- Be strategic — and sensitive — when pairing mentors and mentees.
“Who will mentor who?” is the most important question when it comes to successful mentorship programs. We recommend using confidential surveys to get an understanding of what individuals want to get out of the program, what communication styles they prefer, and what specific skills they want to focus on. Collecting this information will help you determine compatibility between mentors and mentees. But, make sure your program has some level of flexibility in case a partnership simply isn’t a good fit.
- Be open to feedback and evaluation.
As with any new program or campaign, your mentorship program will require testing and improvements . Be sure to provide ample opportunity both during and after the program for employees to express what they liked or disliked about the experience.
3. Provide microaggression and unconscious bias training.
An official mentorship program is a good start, but it’s important to remember that unconscious biases and microaggressions play a major role in workplace inequality.
Microaggressions refer to everyday verbal or nonverbal slights or insults “that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership” (source).
Here’s an example: a woman asks her boss a valid question in a meeting full of male coworkers, and her boss rolls his eyes and chuckles before responding. Experiences like this make it hard for women to embrace mentorship — because they reinforce the toxic idea that men who ask questions want to learn and grow, and women who ask questions are simply less intelligent.
In addition to your mentorship program, prioritize unconscious/implicit bias training for all of your employees. Hold mandatory, collaborative sessions throughout the year. Provide hypothetical examples of microaggressions and unconscious bias — like the one in the previous paragraph — so that mentors and mentees know how to recognize and confront their own unconscious biases in the workplace.
Final Thoughts on Equitable Mentorship and Combating Gender Bias
The #MeToo movement was not meant to inhibit collaboration or create more barriers for women in the workplace. Rather, it was meant to foster a system of support by casting light on the prevalence of sexual misconduct. Providing mentorship opportunities for women allows for more diversity in upper-level positions, thus combating the pervasive power dynamics often seen in corporate America.
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