After #MeToo and the storm of sexual harassment allegations, many male leaders worry they'll land in a compromising position. While this hyper-awareness helps prevent sexual harassment, it also hurts women professionally.
In January, LeanIn.Org and SurveyMonkey surveyed almost 3,000 employed adults. They found that almost half of male managers are uncomfortable mentoring, socializing, or working alone with women.
As a woman, that disheartens me. Such fear closes women off from valuable learning and career opportunities, including one I've seen increasing in popularity: sponsorship.
Unlike mentoring -- which focuses on merely advising young professionals -- sponsors actively speak up for a young person to help their career progress. Having a male sponsor means a woman has access to opportunities traditionally only open to men.
Instead of shying away from these relationships, male leaders should step up to the plate.
1. Understand your own reputation.
One of the biggest benefits of having a sponsor is access to their social capital. Having built a strong network, when you speak up for a female professional, people listen to what you have to say.
For example, Kerrie MacPherson is now a senior advisory partner in New York for the accounting and professional services firm EY. Early in her career, she had a male sponsor who was known to be a hard marker. When he spoke to others about her skills and successes, they knew she was the real deal.
"It's important, to understand that mentors talk with you, whereas sponsors talk about you and use their personal reputations to advocate on your behalf," MacPherson said.
When you find a woman to sponsor, consider what you bring to the table. Do others value your opinion because of your honesty, your creativity, your experience, etc.? Knowing your own strengths will help you better position your sponsee.
For example, if you've spent most of your career in marketing, talking about the woman's own marketing skills will hold more weight than talking about her customer service experience.
2. Formalize expectations.
In a mentorship, it's up to the mentee to act on advice or not. A sponsorship needs to be more structured. Both parties need to establish a goal to work toward.
Choo Kim-Isgitt was hired as the chief marketing officer of the San Diego-based email and web security company EdgeWave. But in a short period of time, the CEO and chairman, Lou Ryan, saw she brought more to the table.
"He has involved me in various strategic decisions in the organization, from product development to business development, working closely with the COO," Kim-Isgitt said. "As a result, my role has evolved into a more product-focused role, driving product roadmap development and overall product strategy."
It's not enough to identify her talent, you also need to align her potential with her ambitions. Find out where she'd like to be a year, five years, and 10 years down the road. Discuss connections you have who can help. Then form a plan covering what both you and she will do to help her reach her goals.
3. Walk out of the spotlight.
Over the years, Darin Reffitt, the vice president of marketing at Calgary-based customer experience platform SPLICE Software, has sponsored several women. He's learned the key to success is entering the relationship selflessly.
"Mentoring is pretty much in the job description for being a good manager," he said.
By guiding the people on your team, you contribute to your own success. But being a sponsor means backing an employee solely for her triumph.
Always give your sponsee credit for her great ideas and hard work. Praise her to other leaders and recommend her for opportunities you hear about through your network. This might take her away from your team, but that doesn't matter. The primary focus is her professional success.
4. Truly understand the gender barriers.
The willingness to help a woman succeed professional does not mean a man is unbiased. Most men are unaware how much their gender has aided in their success. By sponsoring women, you'll get a better look at the obstacles women really face.
"I've heard from a number of male sponsors that they were shocked at what women have to navigate, tolerate and overcome," said Audrey J. Murrell, the Pittsburgh-based co-editor of Mentoring Diverse Leaders. "Many times their response is 'I had no idea.'"
Take this new information and examine your own organization. Become an ally for not only the woman you sponsor, but also all working women. Meet with female professionals and ask for their input on making your workplace more equal. You might be surprised what gender-based challenges are right under your nose.