Mentoring Women in the #MeToo Era: Expert Roundtable
The #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have brought discussions of sexual harassment into the workplace.
The original “Me Too” movement was created by activist Tarana Burke over a decade ago as a way to connect trauma survivors with resources.1 The movement gained widespread popularity when a rapidly growing number of women began using the #MeToo hashtag to speak out against the sexual harassment, abuse, and assault of women by men in positions of power within the entertainment industry.
Soon after, the Time's Up movement took on sexual mistreatment in the workplace, and conversations about sexual harassment and assault shifted “to the broader issue of institutionalized sexism and discrimination against women in other industries,” — including in medicine, wrote the authors of a paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine.2
Although record numbers of women are working in medicine, they “continue to experience sexual harassment and gender discrimination....The #MeToo and Time's Up movements have created a platform for women to challenge inappropriate gender-related treatment in the workplace.” As these movements continue to grow, some men began to express discomfort with the prospect of mentoring women because of the perceived possibility that they might be accused of inappropriate behavior. As a result, men in many fields have begun to adopt measures such as no longer meeting with women alone or not meeting with those who are in subordinate positions.
In the New England Journal of Medicine article, Sophie Soklaridis, PhD, assistant professor in the departments of Psychiatry and Family and Community Medicine at the University of Toronto, and colleagues, discussed the potential underlying reasons for this perspective reaction in the setting of academic medicine.2
“Men's expressed fear of mentoring women is an unexamined reaction to the changing gender landscape of medicine” and is related to anxiety about losing their privileged status, among other issues, they wrote. In 2017, women comprised more than 50% of incoming classes at US medical schools — outnumbering men for the first time. However, women still represent only 16% of medical school deans and they face significant disparities in multiple other areas, including lower pay for equal work and fewer career-enriching mentoring opportunities.2
If men act on their fear of mentoring women, this will only further widen the gender divide in medicine. The authors make several recommendations to address these feelings, including self-examination and open communication with mentees, colleagues, and women leaders.
For additional insights and advice for physicians, Medical Bag spoke with Robert M. Arnold, MD, Chief of Palliative Care and Medical Ethics, and Medical Director of the Palliative and Supportive Institute at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine; Vineet Chopra, MD, MSc, Chief of Hospital Medicine at the University of Michigan and co-author of the upcoming book, The Mentorship Guide; and Roy C. Ziegelstein, MD, MACP, the Sarah Miller Coulson and Frank L. Coulson, Jr. Professor of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.
The following interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Medical Bag: The consequences for women being turned down by men for mentorship are obvious, but what are the potential consequences for men in medicine and for medicine at large?
Dr Chopra: I think there are some real potential consequences for men. First, by choosing not to mentor women, men may become less effective mentors. I have learned a lot from my female colleagues and mentees about things like balancing work/life activities, difficulties in obtaining sponsorship, and workplace challenges that I was completely unaware of, for example. As a mentor, it has helped me grow to understand these issues.
Second, men may miss out on opportunities to create future leaders in our field, should they not engage with potential stars. Some of my female mentees are incredibly smart, and being part of their success is not only rewarding, but important in ensuring good science and the success of our discipline. Finally, mentoring women adds diversity and balance to your growth as a mentor. By choosing not to engage in this core function, I worry that men may actually become less effective at mentoring others.
Dr Ziegelstein: The New England Journal of Medicine article2 makes the point that in response to the #MeToo and Time's Up movements, some men in positions of power may now be afraid to mentor women. When thinking about the potential consequences of this, we have to start by noting that some men in positions of power actually do engage in gender discrimination, misconduct, or harassment. For those men, that fear is appropriate. These men should not be mentors to women, and in fact they should not have many other roles in the workplace. On the other hand, for other men this fear seems overblown, and avoiding mentoring women because of that fear is about as reasonable as choosing to take a bus across the country to avoid flying.
In addition to the obvious consequences this avoidance would have for women, it would unnecessarily deprive men of being able to guide and advise many of the most talented people in medicine, and of helping develop the careers of some of our greatest future leaders. Further, by avoiding mentoring relationships with women, I worry that men tacitly endorse the unfortunately popular narrative that in today's society a man may be considered guilty of gender discrimination, misconduct, or harassment, or even sexual violence even if he has not done anything to deserve that. This fear, and this narrative, may in turn be used by some to diminish the credibility of women who come forward with allegations of sexual discrimination, misconduct, harassment, or violence. That, in turn, has serious negative effects for medicine and for society.
Medical Bag: What are some ways that male mentors can examine their own biases and address related fears? What suggestions would you make to male mentors?
Dr Chopra: The first step is beginning the conversation and recognizing that biases exist and must be confronted. Simple things like going for a golf game with a male mentee on your time off but not extending that opportunity to a female mentee is a good example. Men may assume that women may not be interested in golfing or not have the time to do this because of family commitments, but we should not. Symmetry with mentees is important in the art of mentoring, regardless of gender.
Second, it is important to thinking about what “fears” exist and why. In my mind, many such fears are irrational or ill founded, but they do require introspection and self-examination to overcome them. Finally, I think imitation is important here. So, working with a mentor who has several female mentees to understand best practices or tips and tricks about how to approach sensitive or difficult conversations can be helpful. This is mentors helping mentors get better at what they do.
Dr Ziegelstein: We all have biases, and in general these biases are about groups of individuals who differ from us with respect to gender, race, ethnicity, or other important characteristics. One of the best ways of addressing these biases is to confront them by exposing oneself to individuals from that other group. Mentoring any individual, regardless of that person's gender, race, or ethnicity, allows a person to help the mentee. Mentoring an individual who is different from us not only helps the mentee, but also provides a unique opportunity for the mentor to grow as a person. If done well, a male mentor of a female mentee can be the model of a mutually beneficial and meaningful relationship, helping both individuals in important ways, and therefore helping everyone.
Dr Arnold: I think that when you mentor people who aren't exactly like you, whether in terms of different socioeconomic status, ethnicity, or gender, you need to be aware of these differences, and largely just need to talk about them. If you're not comfortable with a certain issue or you're not the best person to discuss it with, how can you identify other people they can talk to? I ask how I can be helpful, and if [a female mentee] says something like, “I need help balancing work with motherhood,” I might say “I can give you some ideas, but not being a woman, I might not be the most helpful person to talk to. Here are some senior women you could also reach out to.”
You should define your role as a mentor and what your limits are. Most people have more than 1 mentor, and data show that mentoring teams are more effective than single mentors.3
If a male mentor told me that they are nervous about mentoring women in the #MeToo era, I would ask them to tell me more about that, so we could talk about what the #MeToo movement is really about. The vast majority of us who do mentoring don't act that way, and we shouldn't act that way. If a man doesn't want to mentor a woman because of the #MeToo movement, I would think they shouldn't be a mentor.
That said, there are certain issues that are more difficult to give feedback on. For example, if I had a female mentee who I think is behaving in traditionally gendered ways that are getting her in trouble, I might say, “Here's what I see as the impact your behavior is having,” and if she disagrees, I would encourage her to talk about it with a few other people. I would need to say, “This is just my view, this is what I'm seeing.” There are some experiences that I'm never going to live, so I need to connect mentees with others [who can better relate].
Ask others for advice. Go talk to a senior woman and say, “I'm feeling this way and I need some advice.” Be inquisitive and ask for advice if there's something you don't understand.
Medical Bag: What suggestions would you make for women who may be having difficulty finding a mentor?
Dr Chopra: I would always recommend that women — and men — look to develop a mentoring team that includes the expertise they need to succeed. Once that is clear, looking to include individuals who have different gender and ethnic backgrounds can be a next step. Enriching and diversifying the talent of your mentoring team will help you grow and also protect you from a single mentor who may not have the time or interest in ensuring your growth.
Dr Ziegelstein: When I advise students on how to find a mentor, I suggest that they ask senior colleagues which faculty member has the reputation as being the most helpful to students, or which faculty member was selected by students to receive an important award or other honor. I would also suggest asking more senior women which men have a reputation for being excellent mentors, or who helps promote the careers of women.
Dr Arnold: If a woman is having difficulty finding mentor, I recommend that they find other women at their level and ask how they put a together mentoring team. Think about ways to expand your options; you can use videoconferencing to connect, meaning that a mentor doesn't have to be at the same institution — or even in the same profession. You can have different mentors for different purposes. Break down what you want from your mentors and decide how different mentors might meet certain needs.
- Harris A. She Founded Me Too. Now She Wants to Move Past the Trauma. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/15/arts/tarana-burke-metoo-anniversary.html. October 15, 2018. Accessed November 26, 2018.
- Soklaridis S, Zahn C, Kuper A, Gillis D, Taylor VH, Whitehead C. Men's fear of mentoring in the #MeToo era — what's at stake for academic medicine? N Engl J Med. 2018;379:2270-2274.
- DeCastro R, Sambuco D, Ubel PA, Stewart A, Jagsi R. Mentor networks in academic medicine: moving beyond a dyadic conception of mentoring for junior faculty researchers. Acad Med. 2013;88(4):488-496.