In the past few years serious problems in male-female mentoring relationships have been raised by the #MeToo movement, writes Professor Susan Murphy.

A recent study that I conducted in collaboration with professor of management at Loyola Marymount University, Ellen Ensher, and PhD student at University of Edinburgh, Xiaomin Xu, highlighted the risk factors, with the aim to help companies decrease incidences of sexual harassment within their mentoring programmes.

We surveyed 900 US women, across a wide range of occupations, who had been or were currently involved in a negative mentoring relationship with a male mentor. We looked at experiences with derogatory comments based on gender, unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion. A third of those surveyed (33%) experienced one or more forms of harassment, with nearly a quarter (22%) of those reporting the most severe type of harassment. Our findings indicate two ways organisations can help reduce sexual harassment in mentoring.

First, mentored women reported significantly less sexual harassment in organisations that made it clear such behaviour would not be tolerated. Specifically, if women felt that their harassment claims would be taken seriously, that there would be no negative consequences for reporting harassment, and that harassers would face consequences, those organisations had less harassment overall. Interviewees told stories of companies that 'looked the other way' on sexual harassment, holding mandatory annual training that was treated with derision. In one instance it was well known that high performers could be excused of any sexual harassing behaviour, which included late-night compulsory video chats, prolonged full-body hugs and insistence on wine tasting at business dinners.

Second, with respect to mentor characteristics there is a clear link between mentors who were extremely competitive, considered sexual conquest as part of their identity even in the workplace, and belittled the emotions and feelings of others. Think of a workplace perhaps characterised by Mad Men-style dynamics. One interviewee shared that her mentor would routinely order strippers at work to celebrate male co-workers' birthdays. This created a sexualised environment and speaking up against it was considered forbidden.

Most companies have clear policies on harassment, but their application and enforcement can reveal if there is a level of cultural tolerance. Non-disclosure agreements and confidential mediation have brought negative press for companies trying to settle sexual harassment cases. Notorious ‘lad’ cultures can contribute as they produce the type of hyper-masculine work environment that is associated with increased harassment.

The way forward is to provide training that explicitly lays out specific types of harassing behaviours within mentoring relationships. Sexual harassment is about power—and women who are being mentored need powerful sponsors to open doors, make connections, and recommend them for high-visibility assignments.

Mentoring between men and women has become tricky and fraught with fear and paranoia on both sides of the relationship. The number of men who are uncomfortable mentoring women has more than tripled from to 5% to 16% because of fear their behaviour will be misconstrued and that mentoring women may not be worth the effort. If men do back away from mentoring women both genders and their organisations suffer, as it becomes harder to develop the next generation of female talent.

There is a typical pattern in harassing relationships. Our study found that men exercised power regularly in the relationship, making the women increasingly uncomfortable. Many women did not want to label the behaviour initially as harassment as this often begins in subtle ways. Education that helps women recognise when a relationship is becoming harassing, and how to make boundaries clear, is crucial.

Both men and women need sexual harassment training that goes beyond the rudimentary rote legal dos and don’ts. Sexual harassment awareness needs to be part of the curriculum in mentoring training, helping men and women communicate and navigate difficult and delicate conversations with skill, compassion, self-awareness, and authenticity.

Susan Murphy

Prof Susan Murphy is Chair in Leadership Development at University of Edinburgh Business School.

This article first appeared in HR Magazine.