We already know that women struggle more than men to break into positions of power. Luckily, if anything about the gender gap counts as lucky, the latest reason for this disparity sounds easier to overcome than most: women lack friends in high places. “One of the only things that helps close the gender gap [in the workplace] is having a senior-level mentor,” says Christine Silva, senior director of research at Catalyst, a nonprofit research organization advocating for women’s advancement in leadership. “Men still hold the majority of senior positions, so it’s really important for women to gain access to those leaders.” Easy fix, right? Whip out your pearls and put on your game face. It’s time to find a senior-level male mentor.
Wrong. In her widely acclaimed autobiography Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg suggests that men in senior positions actively avoid mentoring their young female employees. No amount of overachieving late-nights can help you there. These executive-level men fear accusations of impropriety and/or sexual harassment—and young female employees share the fear. A 2011 study of over 4,000 professionals found that 64% of men in senior positions resist one-on-one meetings with female employees in junior positions. Similarly, half of the women in the study said they evaded male employers at the risk of being called a slut.
Oli Thordarson, president and CEO of an IT firm in California, defends this apparently rampant fear: “When I was about 35, there was heightened awareness of sex discrimination and harassment, and the lawyer and seminars scared me. I wouldn’t want to defend myself against an allegation that I did something and the other party is a woman under 30, especially if she’s attractive,” he says. Wow. Let’s have a big round of applause for those brave and lonely male employers who somehow manage to talk with and encourage female human beings!
Give me a break. We’re better than this. Men and women possess the intelligence and self-discipline to refrain from wanting to hump every opposite-sex (or same-sex) person in sight. The Petraeus affair proves that romantic relationships do occasionally develop from professional relationships—but is the exception and not the rule. “Ambition is ambition” regardless of gender, says Sam Grobart, a senior writer for Businessweek. I agree. Call me crazy, but I don’t want a brand of antiquated sexual paranoia to determine my professional future. Men: suck up your fear and start mentoring women. Women: suck up your fear and start pursuing your ambition. We live in the twenty-first century; it’s about time we acted like it.