Mentor Slash Lover?

August 16, 2010  |  

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“Our meeting was great…but hopefully…he’s not just some sketch-ball trying to be my mentor slash lover.”

This was the scene at a midtown diner, where one of my girlfriends had just finished telling me about a meeting with her mentor. Throughout lunch, she had been telling me how she had finally connected with an older expert in her field- a published author who had conducted research all over the world and taught at some of the best colleges in the country, someone she had long admired, whose books she had read- in fact, someone she had used as a model for the very career path she’s on. And yet, despite how excited she was to have met him, she admitted that she has worried what would happen if he wanted their dynamic to be what many male-female mentorships become: mentor slash lovers.

The fear of the mentor slash lover is shared by many young women looking to advance their careers. We reach out to people for advice hoping they will help illuminate our paths, add some clarity to our confusion. This is after all what we’ve read in countless magazines and books- that we improve our chances of success by learning the lessons of successful people. Seeking mentors is part of a tried and true strategy that can help us get ahead. But when approaching a male mentor, the rules of engagement can often become blurry.

My girlfriend told me that before her meeting with her mentor she found her mind filled with questions. Was he going to think her asking for guidance was a signal of her interest? Were the kind words in his email more than encouragement? It would be easy for me to say her worries were unnecessary had I not gone through my own past experience with “no good, too close” male mentors.

As a note: I have been fortunate to have some good ones whom I trust wholeheartedly to be professional, honest and gentlemanly. Unfortunately, I have also experienced the bad and ugly: the campaign manager who thought it was appropriate to call my phone after work in a sleazy attempt at pillow talk. Oh and the professor who conducted his office hours with no regard for personal space.

It’s unfair to typecast all men and say that it is not possible for a woman to have a male mentor. Relationships with male mentors can often raise concerns that wouldn’t even cross our minds in regards to another woman. But the dynamic of a male mentor and female mentee are much more heavily weighed. Not only is the man in the position of power, he is also being appealed for advice. In many cases this appeal can be misconstrued and in others it can just be plain taken advantage of.

Here are quick rules of engagement that ensure you’re both remaining within the appropriate boundaries of your relationship:

  • DO delineate what purpose your mentor serves. If your mentor is there to help you better understand the banking industry, for example, a trip to Wall Street is acceptable, but a weekend getaway with just the two of you and a log cabin is not.
  • DO maintain a mutual respect for each other and keep a professional decorum. Calling you “sweetie,” “darling” or “sugar” is not acceptable.
  • DO make your intentions (abundantly) clear. When setting up meetings, have a clear purpose (i.e. “I wanted to meet to discuss some new career prospects.”)  Messages are in everything we do.  This is not the email to fill with dot, dot, dots.  You don’t to appear suggestive…then don’t be.
  • DO NOT accept lavish gifts that seem more suitable for a girlfriend than a mentee.
  • DO NOT accept late-hour phone calls (especially if they’re unrelated to mentorship).
  • DO NOT confide in your mentor about troubles in your love life.  He does not need to know about an argument, a night gone wrong.  No matter what you are saying, you’re communicating to him that he is allowed in that space.
  • DO NOT let an inappropriate action slide.  If you feel uncomfortable, say something. Immediately. Letting it pass sets an unspoken standard of consent and will only allow more room for trouble later.

So what do you think Madames: how do you know when you’ve found a male mentor that is not trying to be your “mentor slash lover”?

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