In Defense of #MentorHer

fem-vs-womenThe article “We Can Do Better Than #MentorHer”: A Response by MenEngage Alliance Members, Partners, and Allies is a critique of the #MentorHer initiative sponsored by LeanIn.org. I’m going to comment on this critique.

As a campaign, #MentorHer conveys a fundamental message that powerful men should come to women’s rescue. This broad framing, including the campaign’s central tagline, ‘#MentorHer’, has inherently patronizing connotations, suggesting women must be ‘helped’ by men. This assumption leads to the risk of some men providing such support as ‘a favour’ rather than as part of equitable and responsible managerial practices.

Junior people (male or female) do need to be helped by their seniors, and currently those seniors are overwhelmingly men. It is not patronizing to suggest that a junior person needs help from a more senior person. Often, the work of mentoring is done as a favour, rather than being part of a formal job description. Mentors are often peers, not direct managers.

#MentorHer risks reinforcing male superiority in corporate culture, and the notion that women need powerful men in order to advance in the workplace. It supports a workplace culture that sees mentorship by a man as an important step for women’s advancement, rather than challenging this gender-unequal notion in the first place.

#MentorHer understands that mentoring is an important step, and acknowledges the fact that today, most mentors will be men. It attempts to address gender inequality by making sure that women have the same opportunity for mentoring that men have.

By urging male leaders to mentor women, #MentorHer erodes women’s voice and decision-making as to how and when they would like to receive mentorship, and what that mentorship should look like, generating counter-productive narratives that reinforce patriarchal thinking. A message that would flip from the focus on the mentor to a focus on the choice of women (#ListenToHer for example) would have been stronger and more constructive.

#MentorHer doesn’t prevent women from mentoring. It merely recognizes the reality that there are not enough women in senior positions to mentor all the junior women who would be helped by mentoring. Mentoring is a gift being given to the mentee by the mentor. Demanding that your mentor listen to you rather than the other way around is a good way to make sure that your mentor is suddenly too busy for you.

The statistics presented by #MentorHer focus on men’s experiences of being uncomfortable working with women following #MeToo. This draws away from the central issue of women’s experiences of inequalities and discrimination in the workplace. The absence of data on harmful practices and inhibiting factors on women’s lives. This is a concerning omission in the campaign’s messaging.

#MentorHer is rightly pointing out that men have concerns too, namely the fear that false accusations will be brought against them. By insisting that the campaign focus only on women’s experiences, you are encouraging a failure to deal with men’s, leading to exactly the increase in reluctance to mentor women reported by LeanIn.org. See my post The #metoo Backlash is Growing.

Although #MentorHer aims to respond to the issues raised by #MeToo, it ignores the central problem of sexual harassment and violence in the workplace that #MeToo highlighted. Global statistics estimate that between 30% and 50% of women (depending on regional context) have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace (ILO, 2013). These experiences include, for instance, overtly sexist environments among peers, direct requests for sexual favors and physical contact, and unwanted sexual advances and use of force by a superior. By failing to address the issue of subordination and objectification of women, the campaign risks allowing harmful behaviours to persist.

The ILO (International Labor Organization) is has the mission of advancing social justice. They are not a credible source of statistics due to this bias. #MentorHer is attempting to address the problem of access to career advancement opportunities. It’s possible to attack both problems simultaneously, but why insist that #MentorHer must be the one to do both?

The #MentorHer campaign implies that female advancement in business is held back by a lack of women’s access to skills, knowledge and contacts. This implicitly places the problem with women and their perceived lack of skills, abilities and opportunities, rather than with corporate culture (and society more broadly) that inhibits women’s equal opportunities through multiple systems of inequality and discrimination. These structural drivers which impede women’s advancement and empowerment in the workplace include gender division of labor and gender stereotypes/biases around labor roles, unequal pay for equal work, discrimination in hiring and promotion due to women’s reproductive roles, sexual harassment, etc.

Mentoring is one of the areas of inequality, and #MentorHer is trying to ensure equal opportunity. By insisting that #MentorHer try to deal with other problems, you weaken the initiative.

Furthermore, it implies that the required skills and knowledge are predominantly held by men. This suggests that women lack the necessary abilities to lead, rather than highlighting the historical privileges men have held in the workplace and other structural drivers at play, which have led to the deep imbalance in the numbers of women versus men in senior positions. By calling on men to support women through mentorship, #MentorHer serves to replicate male privilege and unequal gendered power dynamics, contributing to patriarchal thinking.

Since men are currently the majority of those in senior roles, the required skills and knowledge to advance to those roles are predominantly held by men. How does mentoring women replicate male privilege? Is the implication that women who are mentored by men will become patriarchal thinkers? This seems unhinged.

We do not see how #MentorHer encompases the introspection required of male CEOs and managers for such an initiative to be effective.

CEOs are very busy people. They are primarily obliged to work for their board of directors, who are primarily responsible to the share holders in a public company. Demanding that they and their managers take time away from the business for introspection is unlikely to be well received without a business case showing how doing so will help them achieve their goals. LeanIn.org seems to understand this, and works with companies to show the value of their initiative, which is wise.

Research on potentially successful approaches to engaging men in gender equality shows that critical self-reflection of beliefs and practices is required to change social and cultural norms – including in corporate culture. #MentorHer fails to establish pathways to ensure that all male CEOs, executives, managers and others who may take on mentoring roles receive appropriate assistance in understanding both the broader structural issues at play, and in undergoing an introspective process of reflection in which their role, responsibilities and commitment to women’s economic empowerment and rights is well explored and understood.

If you want more people to come forward to mentor, adding the requirement that they sit through additional training is probably counter productive.

We seek to ensure that #MentorHer delivers a well thought out and constructive intervention using feminist-informed principles for how to work with men, seeking to transform notions of gender, power and privilege, especially when engaging those at the highest levels of the corporate sector.

Incorporating a far left political ideology into a business movement will limit it’s reach in the business world.

Ensure women of all diversities are included in the planning, designing, finalization, execution, and evaluation teams of any initiative and program aimed at promoting gender equality in the workplace. This includes ensuring women of diverse identities have an equal say in all decisions made along the line, including finding solutions that seek to create an equal playing field for women to realize their potential in the workplace, as well as actions seeking to eliminate workplace discrimination and harassment in all its forms.

Requiring a CEO to give anyone equal say in his or her decisions is unlikely to fly. A very progressive CEO might agree, but if doing so interfere’s with his or her ability to deliver results, he or she will be replaced by the board.

Organize businesses leaders to run regular preparatory and advance trainings, together with feminist activists, to introduce and orient CEOs, managers and other leaders on issues of gender equality, women’s rights and their roles and responsibilities as men to be part of the solution to dismantle structural and corporate culture barriers to women’s empowerment and leadership, including a facilitation of the introspective and transformative process required to carry out these roles in a constructive manner.

Forcing business leaders to adopt a far left political ideology won’t work. Forcing them to take action via regulation will be ineffective, and will hurt their ability to compete.

Promote concrete actions to advance equal participation, starting by considering quotas for women on corporate boards. Combine this with advocating for the training of HR staff to ensure an equal and affirmative action hiring processes.

Quotas and affirmative action programs are anti-meritocratic. They are removing equal opportunity in favor of trying to force equal outcomes. You can try to enforce such practices through regulation, but by doing so, you risk creating a backlash against them.

Advocate for workplace policies that advance equality: Call for CEOs to thoroughly evaluate equal pay policies and conduct analyses of corporate pay, ensuring that salaries are always fair and equal regardless of gender. Call for fair and equitable parental leave policies, and business approaches that allow for all employees with parenting and caregiving responsibilities to take paid time off and be supported in doing so.

I fail to see why #MentorHer needs to be the organization advocating for these things.

Advocate for appropriate institutional policies and guidelines based on zero-tolerance for any form of harassment, abuse, discrimination or exploitation, including systems of reporting that are safe, effective and confidential, and make sure all employees are familiar with these policies.

Such policies are pretty much universal in the companies I work for. Again, why is it #MentorHer that needs to do this?

Call on businesses to listen to and believe women who report perpetrators of sexual and other harassment and violence, and support women in the process of getting justice – including taking all necessary legal steps. Ask business leaders to ensure their policies include systems to facilitate the calling out of individuals who harass, abuse or treat others inappropriately, and advance a corporate culture in which calling out perpetrators is encouraged. Ensure that there are clear policies and guidelines that condoning abusive behavior is unacceptable and will not be accepted.

Listen and believe is exactly the reason for the #MeToo backlash. In cases of actual assault, the crime should be reported to the police, not (just) the HR department. Harassment policies need to balance fair treatment of complainants with the rights of the accused to a fair hearing of their side of the story. Punishment of the innocent will make you enemies.

Commission new research on the barriers and challenges faced by women in the workplace and work with women and men together on effective solutions for overcoming these obstacles in a corporate setting with backing from senior management and leadership, informed by key areas of consideration suggested by women and women’s rights organization.

LeanIn.org has been doing exactly this type of research, in conjunction with Survey Monkey. While #MentorHer is not attempting to deal with men’s fears of false accusations, to the detriment of the initiative, based on the results of their research, at least it remains focused on the objective of giving women equal opportunity for mentoring. If MenEngage Alliance’s ‘remedy’ were followed, I expect #MentorHer would be even less effective.

About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
This entry was posted in philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s