Over the years, I’ve mentored a great many new lawyers. To mentor, per se, is an obligation. I was mentored by others and I feel a duty to pay it forward. But whom I mentor is a gift. If you demonstrate a level of intelligence, integrity and zeal, you are worthy of the gift. If not, then find someone else. I may feel an obligation to mentor, but not necessarily you.
It’s a time suck. The demands can come at inconvenient times when I have better things to do, things I would prefer to do more than help you work through a problem. But hey, that’s what it means. If you’re a lousy mentee, then you don’t get the gift. If you don’t see it as a gift, don’t appreciate that I don’t owe you my time and energy, then find another mentor.
But the key is that as much as mentoring may be a duty, it is not a duty to any specific person. And if you, baby lawyer, know it all, then you don’t need my help and I surely don’t need to waste my time. If you’re my mentee, I will go to serious lengths to help you. If not, you’re on your own. Your mommy may owe you love. I do not.
One of the most obvious consequences of the current trend of social justice, the #MeToo movement, is the concern that an inadvertent word or deed will cause a young person to flip out on you.
It’s easy to set aside grossly misogynist responses to the #MeToo movement. But recent surveys suggest that a much subtler backlash is occurring and threatens the efforts some companies and organizations have made to support the advancement of women through leadership ranks.
Three recent surveys arrived at similar troublesome findings: A growing number of men report being uncomfortable or afraid to work alone with a woman. Senior men are increasingly reluctant to mentor younger women or include them in opportunities like business travel or client dinners.
This isn’t about a mentor sexually touching a mentee, but the myriad concerns that arise from uttering a wrong word, based upon whatever lexicon of words are unacceptable at any hour, or a joke, or traditional advice that fails to comport with the current trend in microaggressions. Shockingly, some adults don’t really give a damn about words that make kids cry.
To the mentee, this may be fully justifiable cause to accuse someone of misogyny. To the mentor, this is a minefield of nonsense. Who needs to wander in this minefield?
Picture a client dinner, where the old white man client compliments the mentee on her appearance, thinking he’s being polite and pleasant. The mentee takes it as an outrage, an obvious dimunition of her professionalism. If the mentor fails to chastise the client, and lose his business by telling him that he is a scum-sucking misogynist, the mentor is complicit in the sexism and the mentee feels she must accuse him of such. Fun dinner, right?
A psychiatrist/psychoanalyst cum “leadership strategist,” Prudy Gourguechon, tries to “explain” away this concern. In an anecdote that suggests her husband may be the man least in touch with reality or the foil for fabricated stories, she explains that a multitude of surveys are showing the obvious, that men are choosing not to mentor women.
When I told my husband, who led a consulting firm for 40 years and employed, mentored and sponsored many young women, that I was writing about the #MeToo backlash, he laughed, thinking I was making it up. I said “No, it’s a real thing. Men are afraid to be alone with women at work.” “Then they’re jerks,” said my husband, unhelpfully.
In the unlikely event that there is any truth to this story, the takeaway is that Prudy’s hubby may be the most clueless consultant ever. More to the point, it offers a glimmer of how Prudy, and thus Forbes, assumes its readers are sufficiently shallow not to notice the strawman shift.
So why in the world are men afraid to be alone with women at work?
The implication of the surveys is that men are afraid of being falsely accused. But false accusations of sexual impropriety are actually very rare.
There is no cite for the assertion of rarity, which makes sense as it is unsupportable. And there is no definition of the vague phrase “sexual impropriety.” Vagaries are all the rage, as it saves people from the labor of having to deal with such far-ranging issues as physical sexual assault to stare rape.
Prudy recounts an experience on twitter that reveals the point. After following a man, she received this twit:
“Hello, dear. Great to meet you here.”
I was startled, confused, angry and acutely uncomfortable. Why in the world would some stranger call me “dear”? Didn’t he see me as a businesswoman? How about as an equal, or as a human being?
Most of us would recognize his use of “dear” as a troll. Prudy didn’t. But she lists a string of adjectives about her feelings, all stemming from the one word. A mature response would be to shrug, unfollow and move on. But Prudy was “acutely uncomfortable.” If he was her mentor, would she accuse him of sexism? Would it be true or false? Was this the “sexual impropriety” of which she wrote?
Whether an accusation is true or false depends on how one interprets improprieties, whether they are whatever makes the mentee “feel unsafe” or hurts their feelings. Or less discussed but more likely, doesn’t actually do either, but fits within the paradigm of things the mentee believes she should be offended by, and so pretends to be.
But even if it’s rare, who needs it? There are many young people who seek mentors, who find value in experience and appreciate whatever wisdom, connections, insight they can gain from someone who’s been there. One insight is that some mentees are more hassle than they’re worth, and only a fool invites needless trouble into their world.
My mentees have been male and female. I take parental joy in helping them, watching them succeed. And yes, I learn from them as well, given that my pop culture knowledge is in constant need of updating. I have no plans of refusing to mentor a female lawyer for fear of accusation of misogyny, but then, that’s mostly because I have no fear of the accusation. My thoughts on the subject are about as transparent as possible, and I’ve been lambasted for my sexist disregard of social justice and political correctness regularly. It’s all good with me.
But I have no HR department to answer to, no job to lose, no cool reputation as a woke ally to defend. I can afford to be accused of pretty much anything. My clients have other concerns, and most lawyers with whom I work are beyond such infantile concerns. If a mentor can be harmed by an accusation, then why take the risk? Remember, this is a gift. The only polite response to a gift is to say “thank you,” even if it’s not a gift you want.
H/T Patrick Maupin