Social distancing during COVID-19 is uncomfortable and challenging, but it also creates unique opportunities for men mentoring women to continue to be reliable and caring colleagues. Men who are uncomfortable with cross-gender relationships at work might easily put aside and deprioritize their mentorships with women during the shutdown. But here’s the thing: Outstanding mentors show up and engage with mentees in crises and uncertain times, even when this requires some creativity and adaptation.
This is a crucible moment for men to demonstrate genuine concern and heightened mentorship with female colleagues, especially those with whom they have formed strong professional relationships. During this time of job uncertainty and remote work, outstanding cross-gender mentorship is more important than ever. And there are a number of strategies for leveraging what we call telementoring to deliberately engage in crucial developmental relationships with women.
Although mentorship is critical to the success of women across industries, they get less of the mentorship and sponsorship that leads to retention and advancement. Particularly in historically male-centric professions, mentoring is a salient predictor of both retention and advancement of women, pay raises and promotions, and the extent to which women will report satisfaction with their careers.
Yet, even under ordinary circumstances, many men suffer Reluctant Male Syndrome, the hesitancy to mentor women. For some men, it’s the awkward unknown of platonic professional relationships with the opposite gender or concerns over office gossip. A recent survey of 400 men by Fairygodboss found that 87.5 percent want to help women advance their careers, but 56 percent aren’t sure how to help. For all those men who care about gender equality and understand the irrefutable business case for achieving gender balance in leadership, now is the time to lean in to your mentorships with women.
There are a multitude of synchronous and asynchronous platforms for communication that can be optimized during the pandemic. Video conferencing such as Zoom is ideal for project and career planning, while asynchronous platforms such as email and text are great for check-ins. These communication mediums alleviate the need to worry about office gossip, after-hour meals and optics.
Mentoring in times of high stress and uncertainty
Excellent mentors check in during times of stress to express concern and connection and to help mentees prevent stress from becoming distress about work, job security or their future in the organization. Quite often, merely reaching out, expressing encouragement and offering a line of communication will go a long way toward helping a mentee feel less overwhelmed, especially in this time of information overload. Male mentors should be particularly attuned to additional stressors for their female mentees.
Under normal circumstances, on average, women spend about an hour more a day than men on housework and an hour more on child care. During this time of social distancing, these figures are likely exacerbated.
“Women are typically the chief healthcare officer, the chief entertainment officer, the chief education officer in their homes,” said Kristy Wallace, CEO of Ellevate Network, a group that supports women in the workplace. “In a time of crisis, a time where we don’t have a clear playbook but we do have a lot of panic and anxiety — the weight of these roles is quite overwhelming.”
Ask your mentee when a good time would be to chat and let her know it is OK if there is an interruption by a family member, as you may face the same disruption.
How to offer mentorship to a woman during a pandemic
Even under normal work circumstances, men report some discomfort about approaching a talented junior woman with an offer of mentorship. He may worry about how the offer will land with her, and whether it might be misinterpreted as a come on. And what guy wants to come across as a creep when he’s trying to be helpful?
To combat this, we encourage men to make the contact with a mentee very contextualized. Consider the email below:
“Hi ________, I hope you are well and weathering this challenging time. I just want to reach out and let you know that I’ve been so impressed with your work recently. I thought your presentation on ________ was outstanding. Because the hiring committee clearly got it right bringing you on board, I want to make sure that our company doesn’t lose you! Let me know if there are any questions or concerns you might be having given the current work-from-home directive. If I don’t have the answers, I can try to connect you to the right person. I am always happy to set up a time to chat by phone or video conference if this time away might afford an opportune time to chat about your next career steps and, I hope, advancement at work!”
In many ways, this will feel easier and more natural and a continuation of an existing mentoring relationship. This initiation should feel seamless and instinctive to most mentors:
“I hope you are well! These are certainly challenging times for all of us. I know we were having some great conversations before the lockdown about your next career steps and I want to make sure we don’t lose that momentum during this time away. I’d be happy to schedule a time to videoconference sometime soon to continue that conversation. I can bring you up to date with what I’m hearing about how the pandemic is likely to impact our work and promotion opportunities, and I’d like to hear about your concerns regarding your job/career and how we can strategize a way forward. Hang in there!”
While certain projects and essentially all travel are abandoned at this time, this is a wonderful opportunity to introduce new collaborations. Invite your mentee to collaborate and look for ways to include her in ongoing team projects, especially if it will increase her positive exposure and visibility in the organization.
Sponsorship — the next critical step
Being nice to women and not harassing them is not sufficient to help women ascend. Men need to step up to actively and publicly support women’s careers like they do for other men. That’s how we’ll achieve a workplace that is truly equitable for all. The support and recommendation of employees for promotion and stretch assignments is the foundation of sponsorship. Men continue to get more sponsorship than women. Men and women alike say they get valuable career advice from their mentors, but it’s mostly men who describe being sponsored. Many women explain how mentoring relationships have helped them understand themselves, their preferred styles of operating and ways they might need to change as they move up the leadership pipeline. By contrast, men tell stories about how their bosses and informal mentors have helped them plan their moves and take charge in new roles, in addition to endorsing their authority publicly.
This is a great time for mentors to amplify the achievements of their mentees on social media and Zoom calls. By publicly recognizing their achievements, the mentor provides validation and credibility.
When sequestered away from the workplace and colleagues, we can miss opportunities to be generative, to pay it forward and contribute to the development of others. Telementorship is one excellent antidote to disconnection, and this time of social distancing is the perfect time to capitalize on this opportunity for growth.