In a recently released working paper, Overcoming Gender Discrimination in Business: Reconsidering Mentoring in the Post #Me-Too and Covid-19 Eras, the authors provide an excellent description of the “women are wonderful” effect; men are associated with leadership qualities that are valued in corporate circles — confidence, risk taking and negotiation skills — while women are perceived as better at creating a safe and respectable workplace, valuing people of different backgrounds and considering the impact of business on society. The “women are wonderful” theory explains that the favourability of women is dependent on women behaving in a manner consistent with preconceived gender roles. When women threaten men by competing for traditionally male roles, men tend to withdraw support for them.
As the #MeToo movement has brought many things regarding sexual harassment out into the open, it has led many men to shy away from working with women. We reported on this in our own research report on mentoring post-#MeToo. The authors of the working paper believe that whilst #MeToo has raised awareness of inequality at work, if men resist spending time with women or mentoring more junior women at work, then women will be perceived more and more as the ‘outgroup’. In this way, ‘ingroup’ and ‘outgroup’ bias based on gender appears to have been heightened by #MeToo – the problem snowballs. It is argued that it is not enough to provide tips on how to avoid risk in male-female encounters, and try to encourage men to come forward. Rather, active steps are needed that cause the genders to re-categorize their workplace identities with something other than genders and their stereotyped qualities.
A solution offered in the paper is to have senior women mentor junior men, as a way to recondition the ingroup/ outgroup categorizations of the genders and reduce gender bias in the long term. The authors say “the reality is that it will take substantial effort to encourage senior level men to interact with junior women. These barriers, however, may not apply to encouraging senior women to mentor junior men. Ostensibly, senior women would, unlike their male counterparts, not fear a perception of impropriety or otherwise hesitate at interacting with junior men.”
They go on to say: “This form of mentoring relationship could naturally create the interdependence and cooperative interaction needed to break gender bias. In such a relationship, the success of the junior men would be irrevocably tied to the success of the senior women. The junior men would rely on the senior women for opportunities and their ability to capitalize on these opportunities would be tied to the success and approval of the senior women. This should help normalize cooperative interaction between the genders. Through these mentoring relationships, junior men may then be reconditioned into viewing women and men as belonging to the same workplace group. The interactions would also allow (or force) junior men to confront their gender bias. It is one thing to learn about gender bias through training, it is another to confront gender bias by interacting with women directly. By working with senior women, junior men may grow accustomed to interacting with women in a position of authority and learn to value women for their knowledge and guidance. These interactions would directly counter the prescriptive stereotypes created by the women-are-wonderful effect.”
So, there you have it. If you have senior women in your workplace, make sure they are encouraged to mentor junior men. The authors of the paper do not address how to solve the problem of there not being enough senior women to go around. So, whilst the paper was fascinating and I found myself nodding in agreement throughout, I was not totally convinced by the practicality of the solution.
The value in the paper for me was the description of the “women are wonderful” effect and of male-female ingroup-outgroup bias which has increased post-#MeToo. Knowing this, we should continue to find ways to enable more cross-gender mentorship pairings (or groups) within the relative safety of a formal, structured program, where it is widely known that pairs have been matched by a facilitator. Fewer questions asked about why the pair is spending time together.
I was also inspired by the authors’ discussion of this form of mentoring as a means to achieve “positive externalities” – benefits that extend beyond the mentor and mentee and the here-and-now, to create constructive change in workgroups, organisations, professions and larger society.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
© Melissa Richardson 2021