The Mentor Who Wasn’t

Most experienced lawyers appreciate the value of mentorship, having gained from their relationship with a more experienced lawyer what law school could never teach them. It’s not a sexy subject, even less so in the past few years as the nature of mentorship has continued in its trend away from learning and more toward validation.

Mentees are no longer tolerant of being told they’re doing it wrong, but expect a “good” mentor to only offer tummy rubs. Anything less is mean, and they have no use for mean. For reasons that elude me, they are of the view that they are doing their mentors a favor by allowing them to spend precious time handing out cookies and praise. And they’re not entirely wrong, given that mentors of a certain persuasion seem more than happy to do just that.

But even worse than bad mentors, who fail their mentees by being too nice, or too fearful, to correct errors is to be denied the opportunity to be mentored at all, and that seems a likely problem coming as a backlash to neo-feminism, particularly after the #MeToo movement picked up steam.

It’s become known as the Mike Pence rule, but some men see it as a way of protecting themselves from potential sexual harassment accusations.

The vice president never eats alone with a woman other than his wife, according to a Washington Post article last year, and he won’t attend events featuring alcohol except in her company.

“It was really unhelpful when he said that,” W. Brad Johnson, a psychology professor at the United States Naval Academy, said. “It sounds chivalrous, ‘I’m protecting the little lady’s reputation’, but really it’s just sexism.”

There was a time when someone would offer a reason, or at least a cogent argument, when making an assertion that “really it’s just sexism.” Such details are no longer necessary when it comes to characterizing something as “really it’s just sexism,” as the ad hominem alone is more than sufficient when there is any whiff of differential treatment. And sometimes even when there isn’t.

When Vice President Pence’s “rule” was revealed, it was weird. Weren’t we past such archaic notions of gender impropriety where a man and woman could dine together, enjoy a cocktail, without there being any sexual connotation? What about co-workers discussing business, enjoying camaraderie, as would any two people, except they happened to be male and female. So what?

He points to a survey earlier this year by Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In organization that found the #MeToo movement has made more male managers reluctant to mentor, work one-on-one, socialize or go on business trips with female colleagues.

The issue has created a lot of unwarranted fear among men, Johnson said, that they’ll do something that inadvertently or otherwise offends and leads to a charge of sexual harassment.

Is the fear unwarranted? Johnson says so, but then offers no reason why. And as media reports, from the daily news to the Shitty Media Men list, to Facebook to Twitter suggests, offense and accusations are rampant for words and deeds that were never ill-intended, but nonetheless taken as offensive, if not assaultive, by some woman or some ally to women.

It could be argued that this isn’t “inadvertent” conduct, but rather sexism being unintentionally manifested and thus properly “outed” even if the guy committing the outrage meant nothing sexist by it. After all, if a sexist acts sexist without realizing he’s sexist, he gets no free pass for his sexist cluelessness. This isn’t inadvertence, but ignorance, and ignorance isn’t an excuse.

“There’s this false narrative that there are lots of women ready to make false accusations,” he said. “It’s kind of a fake cause for anxiety.”

Whether “lots of women” make false accusations remains something of a mystery. How many are “lots.” How does one distinguish a “false” accusation? If you’re a man, the answer to “how many” is one, the one who accuses you.

But more to the point, the issue is less about “false accusations” in the sense of someone fabricating a story, outright lying, about a grope that didn’t happen, but of the interpretation of the same pat on the back you would give a male mentee that will be interpreted as sexual by a female. Or far more likely, that words used in a frank discussion will violate the latest Facebook taboo against words no man may utter. Neither the lexicon, nor definitions, of mentors and mentees seem to align well anymore, making ordinary conversation a minefield.

Who needs that? Mentorship is a gift paid forward. Someone did it for us, and now we pay it back by doing it for some other inexperienced person. But the price tag can be too high if it’s not only mentorship, but navigating sensibilities over which we have no control with the potential to turn this gift into a nightmare. We can still repay the gift, but to those mentees who not only desire the help but won’t present the additional risk of hysteria.*

At a blog called “Working Women Report,” it may be unnecessary to explain such mundane details as why men should have no “anxiety” about mentoring women, as its “working women” readers certainly know that they would never do anything inappropriate in attacking a mentor for sexist conduct, for if  they did it, it would, by definition, be appropriate. But it fails to provide its readers with the problem they are facing by denying that a serious issue is an issue at all.

It would not only be wrong, but extremely counterproductive, for men to avoid mentoring women. They’re here. They need to learn, just as we do, and if they aren’t provided the necessary guidance, they will suffer. But to deny the concern is to mislead them.

It’s facile to say “don’t be sexist” and you won’t have a problem, much as people say “don’t commit crime” and you won’t get arrested. It doesn’t work that way, and if we’re to address the problem, people need to be cognizant that there is a problem and what the problem is. This isn’t to say that sexual improprieties can’t, or don’t, happen, but distinguishing between real misconduct and over-sensitivity is the line that needs to be drawn. If not, why would a man put himself in a position to be attacked for trying to give a woman the gift of mentorship?

*As has been recently noted, “hysteria” is a sexist word, although a common word used without gender overtones for the past few centuries. It’s apparently no longer permitted in some circles and could well be the trigger for cries of sexism.

9 thoughts on “The Mentor Who Wasn’t

  1. wilbur

    Alternatively, what’s to prevent a male mentee from claiming a male mentor made unwelcome advances towards him? Can you ever be alone with anyone anymore?

    Stop the world and let me off.

    1. SHG Post author

      A fair point. Even if the level of concern isn’t as high for males at the moment, it’s certainly trending in that direction and may well be considered more of a problem than it’s worth as well.

  2. Dan

    > “It sounds chivalrous, ‘I’m protecting the little lady’s reputation’,

    Nonsense–protecting the lady’s reputation is, at most, a side effect. The purpose is simply to protect Pence’s own reputation (and Billy Graham’s before him, and plenty of others). If you’re never alone with a woman other than your wife, it’s very hard for the woman to accuse you of impropriety. It’s also hard for you to actually engage in impropriety (which is where protecting her reputation comes in), but that isn’t the primary intent of the self-imposed rule.

    Since Johnson so fundamentally misunderstands the purpose of this practice, it’s not surprising that he also misunderstands its effects.

  3. freedomfan

    > As has been recently noted, “hysteria” is a sexist word, […]
    Perhaps “hersteria”? Or would that be more sexist? It’s not easy keeping track.

    1. PAV

      Hysteria already contains the Greek word for “womb”! But I guess considering that gendered might be transphobic…

  4. AH

    This is the double-edged sword that many women don’t yet seem to appreciate. When women generalize about all men, it makes it difficult to complain if men then generalize about all women. We’ve lost all room for nuance along the way.

    1. LocoYokel

      How do you see that? Don’t you realize that all men are shit and the womyn are just speaking truth but when men complain about womyn we are being misogynistic shitlords who just don’t get it? And if you complain about womyn complaining about men you are obviously a MRA shitlord who should be banned from public discourse.

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