When I was a young woman beginning my career, the guidance I received about avoiding sexual harassment and assault was directed at me. What I should wear, where and when I should travel alone.
And then, how to protect myself if my choice of outfit and path to my car turned out not to be enough.
I was fortunate that I didn’t experience harassment at work. But I know some who did, and I’ve read about many more. Their professional lives were disrupted, or even derailed, by inappropriate comments, invitations, physical behavior, and abusive power dynamics.
Today, the favored approach to preventing this discrimination is very different. As I write this (in Sexual Assault Awareness Month), I see more emphasis on teaching young men not to be predators. As wise as it may be to talk to daughters about being careful in a parking garage late at night, the issue is more directly addressed by talking to sons about women’s humanity and equality.
Thanks to the #metoo movement, awareness of sexual assault and harassment is broader than ever—including that abusers and predators target people of all genders.
I remember some voices of dissent (or backlash) at the time: men who said that they were so concerned that their actions might be interpreted as harassment that they were considering opting out of mentoring relationships with women.
I try to be empathetic with people who are learning, and allow space to grow. But this is a pretty outrageous reaction. Men continue to make up a disproportionate amount of senior leaders. As a group, they continue to hold outsized influence on the careers of women and other gender minorities—as mentors, coaches, references, and so on. Until this changes, we need men to be more active in support of the careers of those who have been traditionally underrepresented, not less.
The answer to increased awareness of sexual harassment isn’t “don’t mentor.” It’s “behave appropriately.” It’s not that hard. If you are anxious about your actions being interpreted as harassment, be conservative. Have the conversations in the office or cafeteria, not at a bar. Don’t make physical contact. Don’t expose yourself. These aren’t sacrifices; they are the same expectations you would have interacting with a male employee.
Have you noticed any changes in mentorship in your organization? Are the male leaders in your organization taking the time to support the careers of people with different genders? Is anyone pulling back?
If you’re in a position to encourage these important relationships, do some investigating. And coach folks if they express uncertainty.