When I was a budding journalist, the colleagues most invested in my career were older, heterosexual men. I had recently left the comforts of a grassy campus quad for fluorescent-lit boardrooms and was so insecure and lost that I revelled in any source of guidance.
So when they flirted, I flirted back. I wrote cheeky e-mails and had relationships outside of the office. Sometimes they turned into genuine connections that surpassed any professional motivations. But I was ambitious and a big part of my attraction to older dudes was that they willingly offered answers to my burning career questions.
As valuable as some of that advice was, a mentorship that's intertwined with sexual interest can be incredibly tenuous. When a flirtatious dynamic sours, you suddenly feel too awkward to confide in the person you once relied on to help you work out professional woes. Of course great, platonic male mentors exist - hell, even Don Draper kept his hands off Peggy Olson. But too often young women end up in complicated mentorships with men because they simply don't get the same attention from their older female colleagues.
Looking back, I wish a woman high up on a masthead had helped me navigate difficult decisions and office politics. Sure, there were some slightly older women who gave me great advice and became my close friends. But I was too intimidated to approach the ladies who held more senior positions, and they weren't overly interested in me. None of my management-level female colleagues took me out for coffee, asked me about future goals or offered to write a reference letter on a tight deadline the way the men did. I used to wonder why, but now that I've worked in journalism for eights years, I understand the mentality that leads many successful women to eschew mentoring the next generation.
While senior men often shower a new female intern with attention, I don't always walk over and introduce myself. I rarely shoot them an e-mail to say "Hey, if you have any questions I'm happy to help!" Why? Oh, I dunno. Too busy. Too caught up in my own work. (Insert excuse here.) Subconsciously I'm doing that horrible cost-benefit analysis in which I conclude that helping a young journalist won't do much for me. For many older men, the promise of female attention and flirtation is enough to take an interest in their young colleague's work. Sadly, many mentorships end up being driven by lust rather than a genuine desire to see someone's talent grow.
Women need to do a better job of empowering their younger, female colleagues. A recent LinkedIn survey found 67 per cent of women who have never been mentors use the justification that no one asked for their help, which is frankly a lame excuse. A survey by USA Today of female CEOs, chairs and company founders found that 33 out of 34 women identify a male mentor as having the greatest influence on their careers.
Part of the explanation for this striking statistic has to be that corporate boardrooms are still dominated by men, but if more women in powerful positions doled out advice it would certainly help solve that problem.
It would be deeply unfeminist of me to blame women for the creepy things some men do at the office. Guys should offer professional advice because they like your brain, not your breasts, and lecherous co-workers who make unwanted advances should be promptly fired. But I also know the attraction between older men and younger woman will always exist. You can thank the biological pulls of youthful fertility and a powerful provider. I don't begrudge anyone who pursues that kind of relationship and I don't regret any of mine.
This is not a lecture about who to date. The point is that no young woman should feel like the only person willing to mentor her is the person who also pictures her naked at work, regardless of whether or not she enjoys that dynamic. That is less likely to happen if women with experience make themselves more accessible.
Females in positions of power should reach out to new colleagues. We should introduce ourselves, show an interest in their work and prove that getting solid career advice can be strictly business.
*This column previously appeared in the Ottawa Citizen
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