in conclusion

#MeToo in Mentorship

Highlighting new lessons in corporate learning By Amy Lui Abel and Stephanie Neal

Amy Lui Abel, Ph.D., is managing director of human capital research at The Conference Board.
Stephanie Neal is a research scientist at global leadership company DDI. They can be reached at


n just 18 months, more than 400 high-profile executives and employees have been exposed by the #MeToo movement.

But despite the gains of the movement it has brought unintended consequences. About a third of male managers now feel uncomfortable working alone with a woman — more than twice as many as before. And nearly half feel uncomfortable participating in common work activities with women, including mentoring them.

This consequence of #MeToo is occurring just as the value of mentoring women is clearer than ever: Our latest leadership research found that of the nearly 2,500 companies studied those with at least 30 percent women leaders — and at least 20 percent women senior leaders — have a major competitive edge. They have about a one-and-a-half times greater chance of experiencing sustained, profitable growth. They are also more collaborative, have higher-quality leadership, are more likely to experiment in pursuit of innovation and are faster-growing and more agile than their counterparts.

Why should these findings grab the ear of every male leader?

These findings make the clear case that organizations that shrink from getting more women into leadership may lose their competitive advantage to organizations that are better at leveraging top talent of both genders. Since men still hold 80 percent of senior executive roles (senior vice president and above), it’s not an option to simply have same-sex mentorships nor does it make the best use of matching talent.

Some executives may decide the only way to ensure they are being fair and avoiding any claims of impropriety is to step back from mentoring entirely. In fact, our study showed that one in three senior leaders have never formally mentored anyone. That approach is a big mistake, as the research also showed that a strong mentoring culture — for both men and women — is linked to better business performance. Organizations with a strong mentoring culture filled 23 percent more critical leadership roles than organizations that lagged on this front. They also had 20 percent lower turnover and 46 percent higher overall leader quality. Clearly, a reluctance to mentor could lead to a huge step backward not only for women but for the entire organization.

What steps can companies take to make mentoring a staple of their leadership development strategy?

First, companies must formalize their mentoring programs and have those programs include men and women. Formalized mentoring provides an opportunity to build strategic connections across the organization and connect early leaders with mentors who they might not otherwise seek out. By doing so, organizations can reduce the discomfort in employees of different genders or backgrounds seeking each other out.

A formal document can help clarify what both the mentor and mentee expect to gain.

Secondly, a formal document outlining a mentoring relationship can help clarify what both the mentor and mentee expect to get out of the relationship and what activities may be involved. These guidelines are not meant to detail every interaction but to ensure both people understand how the investment of their time will help accomplish clear goals. Those at the top should remember that they too have the chance to benefit from coaching a rising star. As just one example, more companies are now pursuing reverse mentoring. Under this arrangement, senior-level executives partner with junior high-potential employees. This promotes enhanced development and retention of key talent as well as bringing new perspectives to senior-level executives.

While formal mentoring should take precedent, not every mentoring relationship needs to be a long-term one-on-one commitment. Companies should encourage informal mentoring through open communication across the organization to build a stronger, more connected culture and improve cross-functional training.

The #MeToo movement shows no signs of going away. Count on many men continuing to fear their female colleagues will misunderstand their intentions to mentor them. If the issue remains unaddressed, then organizations — and equally importantly, the high-potential women who comprise them — can expect to fall behind.