Why We Need Men in Mentor Roles More Than Ever

The support and guidance of male leadership in the workforce is critical to helping women succeed.
December 12, 2017 AT 11:00 AM
By Lisa Wong  |  Senior Fellow, Governing Institute
Lisa Wong is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and former mayor of Fitchburg, Mass.

I recently had dinner with my former boss. We reminisced about our successes and failures, caught up on family and career news, and ate really good food. He was a mentor and when he retired, he supported me to succeed him as executive director. It was not an easy process. I was still fairly new to the industry and to the city, and I was a 24-year-old female in a male-dominated industry. But after several months of working hard and negotiations with an all-male board, I got the job.

There is no doubt that that job and journey made an impact on my professional growth. Four years later I was sworn in as the youngest female mayor ever elected in the state and the first minority mayor of the city. Over the years, I had many lunches and dinners with my former boss, who provided advice and guidance. Unfortunately, not everyone has that same support that is often necessary to help women have the same opportunities to succeed as men.

Though it is important that men and women provide this support, the majority of potential mentors are still men. Men hold most of the positions on corporate boards, the senior-level jobs in many sectors, and the majority of judgeships and elected offices in government at all levels. This is the time for men to step up, not stand down from their obligations and opportunities to help women succeed.

Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer for Facebook, warned of a potential #MeToo backlash in her December 3 Facebook post:

“The percentage of men who will be afraid to be alone with a female colleague has to be sky high right now. Doing right by women in the workplace does not just mean treating them with respect. It also means not isolating or ignoring them – and making access equal. Whether that means you take all your direct reports out to dinner or none of them, the key is to give men and women equal opportunities to succeed. This is a critical moment to remind ourselves how important this is. So much good is happening to fix workplaces right now. Let’s make sure it does not have the unintended consequence of holding women back.”

Seen this way, #MeToo has the potential to be a new beginning – one in which women and men remake not only workplace rules but societal norms, together.

I was lucky to have a mentor so early on in my career who didn’t isolate or ignore me. I was nurtured in an exceptionally professional way. He taught me how to fix the boiler in an old factory building we were redeveloping on my first day of work. I didn’t even know how to change the tire on my car at that point, but I was put in charge of overseeing multi-million dollar construction projects, developing and implementing loan programs, and cultivating relationships with high-level officials.

Together, we scoped out buildings to be torn down and walked in woods to plan trails along the river. If my boss had been afraid to be alone with me, or shown any disrespect, I’m not sure where my career would be. Instead, I was treated as someone who was capable of learning and doing, and eventually leading.

I have learned the power of mentorship, and have made it a priority to mentor both men and women who have worked for me over the past decade and a half since then. I have also learned that not all workplaces have that opportunity. As I moved up in my career, I heeded advice on who to stay away from and who to never be alone with in the office. It is still an unfortunate reality that we have to be cautious in this way.

However, I hope that the many people who have the opportunity to engage their employees and encourage them in positive and professional ways, continue to do so. Future leaders are counting on the support and reinforcement of how mentoring should work.