I have been thinking a lot lately about the climates we create in higher education that are giving mixed messages to members of our community, particularly around gendered relationships, often characterized by the outdated binary gender labels (Sérráno 2019) still prominent in institutions of higher education. In the era of the “me too” movement, high rates of sexual violence (NSVRC “Statistics”) and workplace harassment (Shaw, Hegewisch, and Hess 2018), and societal pressures to achieve with perfection (Women at Work 2018), we are forgetting to practice kindness, respect, and healthy relationship-building (Bonior 2018) both in and out of the workplace (Hellebuyck n.d.).  Yet we owe it to our students to figure out how to participate respectfully in our higher education work so that we both can model healthy relationships and give students opportunities to practice them.

As a researcher in movement control, learning, and development, I know that the key to improving coordinated movement is practice, and yet we are not practicing and modeling relationship-building in our institutions of higher education and professional settings. With this disconnect it should not be surprising that rates of gender-based workplace harassment and violence are high (Workplaces Respond to Domestic and Sexual Violence n.d.). Relationships between and within humans are complex, and we must practice them with authenticity so we have more tools to engage when situations necessitate making hard choices about how to engage. I am in my 19th year as a faculty member in higher education. I have attended multiple workshops and trainings, I have had a lot of conversations and heard many speakers, and I have read many books and joined book clubs sponsored by women leaders about how to navigate higher education as a woman, a mother, a partner. What is shocking to me is that the narrative has not changed much in my time, even though it is a period when women are supposedly more included than ever before. So many “trainings” and “experts” are still giving advice on how to mentor women in the workplace, how to have family-friendly policies, how to support women as leaders, the list goes on. These conversations also completely dismiss our colleagues and students who identify on most parts of the LGBTQIA rainbow and deserve meaningful mentoring.

What I offer below is a common-sense guide to working with others that is in many ways a response to the continual narrative of how women can become leaders, often mentored by male leaders. It is direct, and high on sarcasm, but underlying is some pretty basic, sensible advice. My hope is that we can practice engaging in authentic healthy relationships and model this for ourselves and all those who are watching (including our students).

Listen in meetings—stop the “hepeat” or “retweet”

This is common courtesy. Listen to others and stop trying to figure out what to say next to one-up others. If you see hepeating (Dodgson 2018) happen, call people out—amplify—marking the practice to change the culture. Colleagues collaborate, learn from each other, and respect each other—all of these require listening skills. All humans need to use these skills, and we should hold each other accountable to these standards. Expect each other to listen to all ideas around the table and respect our colleagues and the diverse perspectives they bring. Together we are better—always. Once you’ve re-engaged your listening skills (Behesti 2020), give students opportunities to practice these skills in classes and in research meetings; create a culture marking hepeating (or retweeting).

Listen as a mentor—but then mentor

While mentors should listen to mentees’ goals and ideas, mentors should also give tangible, clear, and honest advice so mentees can process and implement if appropriate. In other words, if you have a nail in your head they should tell you to pull it out (“It’s not about the nail”).  Spouses, friends, and partners should listen, empathize, and refrain from necessarily “fixing” . . . but career mentors . . . they should tell you and not let you walk around like a fool. You can go complain to a partner, friend, or significant other—but a mentor should sometimes tell you the hard-to-hear stuff. Humans cry, some may cry more than others—interpret this as passion not as weakness, and support passion! Give colleagues and students time to digest this direct advice and then invite them to reflect together on their professional development.

Champion your colleagues and mentees

Find mentors with shared interests or goals, and champion your colleagues. Expect to learn from each other and not disseminate wisdom in one direction. Read about co-mentoring (Ketcham, Hall, and Miller 2017) and understand that these relationships have inherent vulnerabilities. Treat and manage these relationships with care. Be secure in yourself to know that others’ success says NOTHING about you—good or bad. You can be successful too. You be you! Yes, it takes support, networking, belief in yourself, and sometimes hard advice. Embrace it, digest it, process it, and own your next steps. Let colleagues, friends, mentors, and mentees own their success and celebrate with them—do not demand or expect recognition. Model lifting up colleagues—students are watching.

Know and use your power for the greater good

General statements about groups that you do or do not belong to matter to that group. General statements about abilities or characteristics of a group may be hurtful whether intended or not. It is important to understand this and know that if you have power, it can hurt and impact broadly and widely. Use this power for good. Understand your biases and work to progress beyond and through them. Do not expect or give fanfare as you work through or you watch others work through this process privately or very publicly (e.g., “What Larry Summers Said,” Jaschik 2005). It is our job—always—to work to understand others’ perspectives and grow in our own perspectives, because it matters. Expect to be called out on your views and learn from how others perceive them. Tell people respectfully when you perceive their views as hurtful—even if they seem unintentional. No need to defend, justify, or belittle as these conversations, perspectives, and views are shared. Process, digest, and do better; demand better! Find ways to practice marking hurtful and biased statements in classes and in meetings with students, and model shared responsibility.

Live, laugh, learn

Time of day, location, beverage choice, clothing choice, hairstyle, etc. should NEVER be under consideration based on gender, race, ideology, religion, marital status, parenting status, partner status . . .  as individuals meet to talk about work, or career, or life. It should be based on two or more people finding common ground to meet and discuss varying topics at hand. We are adults and so ADULTING is an important skill to exhibit as a professional. Set meetings and boundaries around your needs. Do not set them because “it might look bad” or “be perceived as something more” (e.g., “The Mike Pence Rule – Never Dine with Women Alone”).  This mindset IS damaging—stop. Encourage student mentees to do the same; their boundaries and needs matter too!

Stop judgment

In the same spirit, if you see people you know out in public in whatever venue, assume nothing. They may be together for a million and one reasons. It is not your place to judge, spread rumors, or assume intentions—smile, wave, and engage. Many people can meet, smile, laugh, eat, drink, and work and not be up to something suspicious. Remember your reactions serve as a model for how our students learn to react. Model trust and grace. 

Set Boundaries

If a relationship with a colleague or mentor turns into a relationship that is beyond what you are comfortable with, talk to the other person about it and set boundaries together. This communication is important to boundary setting (Noto 2019), specifically in workplace relationships. Communicate and expect to be communicated with. “Hard,” or more appropriately “unpracticed” conversations will and should happen. Let them and engage in them. Maturely. Respectfully. Openly. If someone talks to you about needing boundaries or feeling like the relationship is potentially moving in the wrong direction, listen and come to a mutual plan together. Then move on. This is communication, managing expectations, respecting each other’s perspectives. Revisit often and understand that all relationships have a level of intimacy—manage together the expectations, then respect and trust. Respect that power structures are an inherent part of students’ reality in higher education, no matter how much we try to flatten the structure through co-mentoring (Ketcham, Hall, and Miller 2017) models and students as partners models. Be mindful of how power structures explicitly or implicitly play out from a student perspective and do not let them undermine students’ trust in the potential for positive workplace relationships.

Trust . . . period

Trust the process, trust others, be trustworthy. Good things and great things come from people working together, and multiple perspectives should be valued. Build that up in all ways you can.

Perhaps if one is still confused, this ROCK HACK may be helpful. The cliff notes are the following:

“So there you go! You’ve learned the quick and easy way to interact with women without behaving inappropriately. Simply offer them the same respect, admiration, and healthy dose of fear you’d offer anyone who could completely destroy you should you deserve it.”

(Clark 2017)


Beheshti, Naz. 2020. “Reclaim the Lost Art of Deep Listening.” Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/nazbeheshti/2020/01/30/reclaim-the-lost-art-of-deep-listening/.

Bonior, Andrea. 2018. “What Does a Healthy Relationship Look Like?” Psychology Today, December 28, 2018. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/friendship-20/201812/what-does-healthy-relationship-look.

Clark, Anne Victoria. 2017. “The Rock Test: A Hack for Men Who Don’t Want To Be Accused of Sexual Harassment.” Human Parts (blog), October 9, 2017. https://humanparts.medium.com/the-rock-test-a-hack-for-men-who-dont-want-to-be-accused-of-sexual-harassment-73c45e0b49af.

Dodgson, Lindsay. 2018. “Men Are Getting the Credit for Women’s Work through Something Called ‘Hepeating’ — Here’s What It Means.” Business Insider, March 8, 2018. https://www.businessinsider.com/what-is-hepeating-2017-9.

Grossman, Joanna L. 2017. “Vice President Pence’s ‘Never Dine Alone with a Woman’ Rule Isn’t Honorable. It’s Probably Illegal.” Vox, March 31, 2017. https://www.vox.com/the-big-idea/2017/3/31/15132730/pence-women-alone-rule-graham-discrimination.

Hellebuyck, Michele. n.d. “Positive Relationships in the Workplace.” Mental Health America (blog). Accessed November 16, 2021. https://www.mhanational.org/blog/positive-relationships-workplace.

Jaschik, Scott. 2005. “What Larry Summers Said.” Inside Higher Ed, February 18, 2005. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2005/02/18/what-larry-summers-said.

Ketcham, Caroline J., Eric E. Hall, and Paul C. Miller. 2017. “Co-mentoring Undergraduate Research: Student, Faculty and Institutional Perspectives.” PURM: Perspectives of Undergraduate Research Mentoring 6.1:1-13. https://www.elon.edu/u/academics/undergraduate-research/purm/wp-content/uploads/sites/923/2019/06/final_Ketcham-Hall-Miller_main.pdf.

me too. Movement. “Me Too. Movement.” Accessed November 16, 2021. https://metoomvmt.org/.

Noto, Holly. 2019. “Organizational Adulting: Divisive Workplace Behaviors and How to Overcome Them.” Xplane (blog), March 18, 2019. https://xplane.com/organizational-adulting-divisive-behaviors-and-how-to-overcome-them/.

NSVRC (National Sexual Violence Resource Center). n.d. “Statistics.” Accessed November 22, 2021. https://www.nsvrc.org/statistics.

Sérráno, Bri. 2019. “The Invisible Labor of Liberating Non-Binary Identities in Higher Education.” Spark: Elevating Scholarship on Social Issues (blog), September 10, 2019. https://medium.com/national-center-for-institutional-diversity/the-invisible-labor-of-liberating-non-binary-identities-in-higher-education-3f75315870ec.

Shaw, Elyse, Ariane Hegewisch, and Cynthia Hess. 2018. “Sexual Harassment and Assault at Work: Understanding the Costs.” IWPR (blog), October 15, 2018. https://iwpr.org/iwpr-publications/briefing-paper/sexual-harassment-and-assault-at-work-understanding-the-costs/.

Women at Work (podcast). 2018. “Perfect Is the Enemy.” Harvard Business Review, Season 2, episode 5. October 15, 2018. https://hbr.org/podcast/2018/10/perfect-is-the-enemy.

Workplaces Respond to Domestic and Sexual Violence. n.d. “The Facts on Gender-Based Workplace Violence.” Accessed November 16, 2021. https://www.workplacesrespond.org/resource-library/facts-gender-based-workplace-violence/.

Dr. Caroline Ketcham is a Professor and Chair of Exercise Science at Elon University. She has extensive experience as both a mentor and mentee of badass humans (across gender identities) who have made a profound mark on her and her work. She has received individual awards for her teaching, mentoring, scholarship, and service as part of her 19-year career in higher education. Her views do not necessarily represent the views of any of her colleagues, mentors, or mentees; although these valued relationships have driven her passion to write this response.

How to cite this post

Ketcham, Caroline J. (2021, December 7). Mentoring Across Differences: A Common-Sense Guide to Working and Mentoring Across Genders in Higher Education [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/mentoring-across-differences-a-common-sense-guide-to-working-and-mentoring-across-genders-in-higher-education