In Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, “Lean In,” she suggests that part of the problem facing women in the workplace is reluctance from male executives to mentor younger female employees.
She may be right. A 2010 study from the Center for Talent Innovation (formerly the Center for Work-Life Policy), found that nearly two-thirds of men in senior positions pulled back from one-on-one contact with junior female employees because of fear of being suspected of having an affair. Meanwhile, half of junior women reported being nervous about one-on-one contact with senior men for the same reason.
Call it the Lolita Effect: Could choosing to be—or have—a mentor who’s significantly older or younger really hurt your career? Or is the idea that men and women of a certain age can’t be seen together hopelessly retro?
We asked a few high-powered men and women to tell it to us straight, and also tracked down expert tips on how to find (or be) a mentor in the workplace without raising eyebrows.
Skirting Wrong Impressions
Some high-ranking male executives do own up to worrying about appearances, especially with much younger women. “When I was about 35, there was heightened awareness of sex discrimination and harassment, and the lawyer and seminars scared me,” says Oli Thordarson, 51, president and CEO of Alvaka Networks, an IT firm in Irvine, Calif.
“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. But Thordarson overcame his fear and mentored a young female colleague. “She proved to have an incredible amount of potential and talent, but I was very careful not to meet in a closed office, or to be sitting around the office with her when everyone else was gone,” he says. “It was as much for appearance’s sake as anything.”
Other execs say they don’t think twice about mentoring employees, regardless of their gender.