How to ease men’s fear of mentoring in medicine

There has been a recent surge in discussion about men’s fear to work alone with female colleagues in medicine. This reluctance puts both men and women at a disadvantage. Women are being excluded from career opportunities and men are missing out on the benefits of collaboration. As a victim of sexual misconduct during my own medical training, I find the recent increase of acceptance of reporting to be a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, my training was pre #MeToo era and I felt I had reached an unspoken ‘reporting quota’ with disability discrimination complaints (see “Hospital fires doctor for having cancer”). Women coming out about their experiences has dissuaded some actual predators from engaging in their despicable indulgences but it also deters men with perfectly good intentions from providing colleagues with chances for professional development. While watching the Kavanaugh Senate hearing, my husband noted that some men are becoming increasingly fearful they will be seen as guilty until proven innocent (regarding actual innocent men). I replied by saying, “This is the way it has been for minorities and women throughout history.” I joked, “Welcome to the club.”

In my youth, I thought that living life as a white male was like playing a video game on the easy setting. This is an unfair stereotype that is becoming less and less true. As Trump has put it, “it’s a very scary time for young men in America.” As life has been scary for the rest of us for quite some time, we might not pity them, but we should help them. In my psychiatry practice, I have seen a recent influx of young males suffering from anxiety secondary to widespread talks of “privilege.” They worry that a false accusation is around every corner. I, too, know the fear of false allegations. I was falsely accused of all sorts of things by the defendant during my cancer discrimination case. Rumors become particularly destructive to a person when the rumor reaches an audience who knows nothing of that person, aside from the rumor. It is terrifying that one’s career can be shattered by a single statement from another human being.

After reading “Men’s Fear of Mentoring in the #MeToo Era — What’s at Stake for Academic Medicine?” in NEJM I found two reasons why this is branded as a “fear of mentoring” rather than “fear of being accused of sexual misconduct (falsely or not).” First, working alone with a woman might tempt the man to engage in inappropriate behavior. If that is the case I would ask the man to reevaluate his decision to work in academia. The second is that being alone with a woman would add credibility to an accusation if it were to arise. There is nothing scarier than being accused of sexual misconduct by someone with a credible story, except, well, the fear of being the victim of actual sexual misconduct. Women have been scared of being mentored by men and it is only now that men are getting a taste of the feeling. For men to alleviate their own fear of mentoring, they first need to mitigate the women’s fear of being mentored. A man can ask himself, “If I were her, would I be afraid to work with me? If so, why?” From there, he can address the reasons one by one.

The fear of mentoring must be tackled head-on. For example, when I was in residency, an attending whom I viewed as a role model asked me to go to a bar across the street with him during my lunch break. Using my past experiences with male educators as a guide, I was apprehensive to accept. I recalled a time during medical school when a fellow invited me for lunch. After that, he frequently contacted me outside of work. If I ignored him, he made life insufferable for me on rounds the next day, which affected my evaluations. I did not want a repeat of this. Later, I discovered that the attending asked another resident to the same lunch. I was relieved. In order to have avoided my initial fears, he could have had a conversation with me explaining that another resident was invited, that the lunch was strictly work-related, and that it would be perfectly acceptable if I declined. Less fear for me would translate to less fear from him.

Why are such conversations not commonplace? Being upfront about one’s concern that their actions may be misinterpreted would entail an element that is sorely lacking in the medical hierarchy; admission of vulnerability. The confession of fear is a blow to one’s ego. A man may think that if he has to explain his intentions, it would suggest that his intentions were questionable in the first place. Whether or not the question was asked, providing an answer will help prevent the situation that men fear so much. It is a much better solution than ending mentoring entirely. I call upon all male physicians to normalize these conversations. Just as it took strong, determined women to start the #MeToo movement, it will take brave men to start a genuine conversation about their intentions in the mentorship of a female trainee.

Stephanie Waggel is a psychiatrist and can be reached at Improve Medical Culture.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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