“We Can Do Better Than #MentorHer”: A Response by MenEngage Alliance Members, Partners, and Allies

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The launch of #MentorHer, a campaign by LeanIn.org that aims to get more male CEOs and managers to mentor women in the workplace, has sparked significant discussion among activists, practitioners, and scholars working for women’s rights and gender justice.

MenEngage Alliance members, partners and allies across the globe with long-standing experience working to advance women’s rights and gender justice, specifically by engaging men and boys, we have come together to put forward this statement. In light of the campaign’s scope and potential influence within the business sector and beyond, this collective response, coordinated by the Global Secretariat of MenEngage Alliance, raises some potential concerns and possibilities for ways forward.

The #MeToo movement has sparked an important and long-overdue public conversation concerning women’s rights. With its widespread breadth and impact, the movement has the potential to act as a sustainable and effective catalyst for change if responsive actions are rights-based, thoughtful, and comprehensive.

We recognize and acknowledge the aspirations of #MentorHer to take concrete actions in this spirit, aiming to shift attitudes and practice in the business sector by mobilizing leading global CEOs. We recognize the importance of developing initiatives to address gender inequalities in the workplace. We also acknowledge the importance that mentorship programs can play in providing many benefits for women’s long-term career potential, as well as a means to challenge the discriminations women face in the workplace.

However, we also have a number of concerns regarding the framing and execution of #MentorHer. This analysis and response, which continues to be informed by diverse inputs, aims to present those concerns and provide possible recommendations and solutions for ways forward. Sign onto the response here.

Key Considerations on #MentorHer

We have concerns regarding the tone and framing of #MentorHer :

  • As a campaign, #MentorHer conveys a fundamental message that powerful men should come to women’s rescue. This broad framing, including the campaign’s central tagline, ‘#MentorHer’, has inherently patronizing connotations, suggesting women must be ‘helped’ by men. This assumption leads to the risk of some men providing such support as ‘a favour’ rather than as part of equitable and responsible managerial practices.
  • #MentorHer risks reinforcing male superiority in corporate culture, and the notion that women need powerful men in order to advance in the workplace. It supports a workplace culture that sees mentorship by a man as an important step for women’s advancement, rather than challenging this gender-unequal notion in the first place.
  • By urging male leaders to mentor women, #MentorHer erodes women’s voice and decision-making as to how and when they would like to receive mentorship, and what that mentorship should look like, generating counter-productive narratives that reinforce patriarchal thinking. A message that would flip from the focus on the mentor to a focus on the choice of women (#ListenToHer for example) would have been stronger and more constructive.
  • The statistics presented by #MentorHer focus on men’s experiences of being uncomfortable working with women following #MeToo. This draws away from the central issue of women’s experiences of inequalities and discrimination in the workplace. The absence of data on harmful practices and inhibiting factors on women’s lives. This is a concerning omission in the campaign’s messaging.

We are concerned by #MentorHer’s lack of acknowledgement of the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace :

  • Although #MentorHer aims to respond to the issues raised by #MeToo, it ignores the central problem of sexual harassment and violence in the workplace that #MeToo highlighted. Global statistics estimate that between 30% and 50% of women (depending on regional context) have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace (ILO, 2013). These experiences include, for instance, overtly sexist environments among peers, direct requests for sexual favors and physical contact, and unwanted sexual advances and use of force by a superior. By failing to address the issue of subordination and objectification of women, the campaign risks allowing harmful behaviours to persist.

In our view, #MentorHer does not address structural drivers at play and risks replicating patriarchal power dynamics :

  • The #MentorHer campaign implies that female advancement in business is held back by a lack of women’s access to skills, knowledge and contacts. This implicitly places the problem with women and their perceived lack of skills, abilities and opportunities, rather than with corporate culture (and society more broadly) that inhibits women’s equal opportunities through multiple systems of inequality and discrimination. These structural drivers which impede women’s advancement and empowerment in the workplace include gender division of labor and gender stereotypes/biases around labor roles, unequal pay for equal work, discrimination in hiring and promotion due to women’s reproductive roles, sexual harassment, etc.
  • Furthermore, it implies that the required skills and knowledge are predominantly held by men. This suggests that women lack the necessary abilities to lead, rather than highlighting the historical privileges men have held in the workplace and other structural drivers at play, which have led to the deep imbalance in the numbers of women versus men in senior positions. By calling on men to support women through mentorship, #MentorHer serves to replicate male privilege and unequal gendered power dynamics, contributing to patriarchal thinking

We do not see how #MentorHer encompases the introspection required of male CEOs and managers for such an initiative to be effective :

  • Research on potentially successful approaches to engaging men in gender equality shows that critical self-reflection of beliefs and practices is required to change social and cultural norms – including in corporate culture.#MentorHer fails to establish pathways to ensure that all male CEOs, executives, managers and others who may take on mentoring roles receive appropriate assistance in understanding both the broader structural issues at play, and in undergoing an introspective process of reflection in which their role, responsibilities and commitment to women’s economic empowerment and rights is well explored and understood.

Recommendations for Solutions and Ways Forward:

#MeToo has brought to light the urgent need to address deep-rooted socio-economic and cultural norms, practices and stereotypes which maintain barriers to women’s full economic, social and political potential in the workplace and beyond. It has also brought to light the roles and responsibilities of men in responding to men’s abuse of power, harassment and violence. As the primary holders of power and privilege in our societies, men have a critical responsibility to dismantle patriarchal systems. It is for this reason that we seek to ensure that #MentorHer delivers a well thought out and constructive intervention using feminist-informed principles for how to work with men, seeking to transform notions of gender, power and privilege, especially when engaging those at the highest levels of the corporate sector.

The cornerstone of engaging men in women’s empowerment centers on accountability to the voice, concerns, actions, leadership and vision of women’s rights activists, organizations, and movements. Mobilizing men around such critical issues as those surfaced by #MeToo, cannot be left solely in the hands of primarily male CEOs, precisely because this undermines the leadership and decision-making ability of all women to design and construct solutions to the problems they face in the workplace. This risks reinforcing the systems of power which feminist and women’s rights movements have long been trying to dismantle.

As such, we provide the following recommendations for concrete actions on how to further inform the campaign:

  • Ensure women of all diversities are included in the planning, designing, finalization, execution, and evaluation teams of any initiative and program aimed at promoting gender equality in the workplace. This includes ensuring women of diverse identities have an equal say in all decisions made along the line, including finding solutions that seek to create an equal playing field for women to realize their potential in the workplace, as well as actions seeking to eliminate workplace discrimination and harassment in all its forms.
  • Organize businesses leaders to run regular preparatory and advance trainings, together with feminist activists, to introduce and orient CEOs, managers and other leaders on issues of gender equality, women’s rights and their roles and responsibilities as men to be part of the solution to dismantle structural and corporate culture barriers to women’s empowerment and leadership, including a facilitation of the introspective and transformative process required to carry out these roles in a constructive manner.
  • Promote concrete actions to advance equal participation, starting by considering quotas for women on corporate boards. Combine this with advocating for the training of HR staff to ensure an equal and affirmative action hiring processes.
  • Advocate for workplace policies that advance equality: Call for CEOs to thoroughly evaluate equal pay policies and conduct analyses of corporate pay, ensuring that salaries are always fair and equal regardless of gender. Call for fair and equitable parental leave policies, and business approaches that allow for all employees with parenting and caregiving responsibilities to take paid time off and be supported in doing so.
  • Advocate for appropriate institutional policies and guidelines based on zero-tolerance for any form of harassment, abuse, discrimination or exploitation, including systems of reporting that are safe, effective and confidential, and make sure all employees are familiar with these policies.
  • Call on businesses to listen to and believe women who report perpetrators of sexual and other harassment and violence, and support women in the process of getting justice – including taking all necessary legal steps. Ask business leaders to ensure their policies include systems to facilitate the calling out of individuals who harass, abuse or treat others inappropriately, and advance a corporate culture in which calling out perpetrators is encouraged. Ensure that there are clear policies and guidelines that condoning abusive behavior is unacceptable and will not be accepted.
  • Commission new research on the barriers and challenges faced by women in the workplace and work with women and men together on effective solutions for overcoming these obstacles in a corporate setting with backing from senior management and leadership, informed by key areas of consideration suggested by women and women’s rights organization.

We thank you sincerely for taking the time to read our analysis and response. We offer our consultation in developing the campaign further, in order to ensure that a well-intentioned effort with problematic undertones becomes a pathway for constructive change towards the economic, social and political empowerment of all women in the workplace.

Join hundreds of others by signing onto this response here

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