Will the Petraeus affair hurt cross-gender mentoring relationships?

He was the CIA director and US Army general; she was an expert in counter-terrorism, a noted journalist and academic who penned his biography All In: The Education of General David Petraeus.

And it's a story that's probably been told a million times before, but generally without such high-profile players: the CIA's Petraeus and Paula Blackwell, the women with whom he had an extramarital affair and who repeatedly referred to him as a mentor – telling one interviewer that Petraeus approached her project "from a mentoring point of view" and in another, calling him an "academic mentor of mine, if you will."

The scandal has had implications on their relationships, their careers, and some claim, national security. But outside of this, what are the broader implications for the career trajectory of the subjects of the scandal?

Will the widespread repercussions stop other men from seeking out female mentees for fear of appearances of impropriety? As Forbes asks; "Is there an inherent danger in younger women pursuing mentor relationships with older, high-profile men? "

A 2011 study of more than 4,000 US professionals, conducted by nonprofit research organisation The Center for Talent Innovation, found 64% of senior males avoided mentoring junior women for fear of speculation of an affair. 

As Forbes noted, this kind of mindset is damaging for women who are already struggling to step up into leadership. Because of the gender imbalance in leadership positions, women need male mentors.

"One of the only things that helps close the gender gap is having a senior-level mentor," Christine Silva, senior director of research at Catalyst, a nonprofit research organisation advocating for women's advancement in leadership, tells Forbes.

"Men still hold the majority of senior positions, so it's really important for women to gain access to those leaders."

As the founder of e-commerce sites including minted.com, which sells emerging designers' work, Mariam Naficy told Inc.com that male mentors for women were critical, particularly in male-dominated industries.

"I've really worked hard on my male friendships and relationships and they have paid off tremendously. I think it's a guys' problem as much as it is a women's problem. The integration [of women in entrepreneurship] has to be done together with men if people want to see more female business leaders and entrepreneurs," she told Inc

But as Karen Swallow Prior writes at The Atlantic "such heightened cautions around an opposite-sex professional association serve only to sexualise an otherwise innocent work relationship by placing sex front and center."  

While she notes, caution is wise – "in all mentoring relationships, of course, but particularly in opposite-sex (or, in some cases, same-sex) mentoring relationships" the implication that working relationships between men and women are necessarily sexual, is "as wrongheaded as its polar opposite: that our sexual natures can be utterly repressed and denied at will."

Ultimately, these working relationships need to be built based on mutual boundaries.

As Swallow Prior writes, "perhaps we can thank David and Paula for offering that reminder while we go about the business of helping to advance one another and our professions regardless of our sex."

Jordi Roth

Jordi Roth is a writer and producer for Women's Agenda.

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