Heidi Stevens: Andrew Cuomo sexual harassment allegations got a whole lot ickier when he threw the word ‘mentor’ in the mix

3March 2021

Heidi Stevens: Andrew Cuomo sexual harassment allegations got a whole lot ickier when he threw the word ‘mentor’ in the mix

A life hack: If you’re 63 and she’s 25 and you’re her boss, the flirtation is always, every time, definitely unwanted.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, facing sexual harassment accusations from two former aides, released a statement Sunday acknowledging that his interactions at the office “may have been insensitive or too personal.”

“I acknowledge some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation,” his statement reads. “To the extent anyone felt that way, I am truly sorry about that.”

In a New York Times story published online Saturday and on the newspaper’s front page Sunday, Charlotte Bennett, 25, said the three-term, 63-year-old governor asked her questions about her sex life, whether she was monogamous in her relationships and if she had ever had sex with older men.

Bennett was an executive assistant and health policy adviser in Cuomo’s administration until November.

“He asked me if I believed if age made a difference in relationships, and he also asked me in the same conversation if I had ever been with an older man,” Bennett told the Times.

“At one juncture, Ms. Bennett said, the governor also noted that he felt ‘he’s fine with anyone above the age of 22,’” the Times reports.

Cuomo’s statement called for an “outside, independent review” to look at Bennett’s allegations, as well as allegations by former aide Lindsey Boylan, who accused the governor of proposing a game of strip poker on a government airplane and stopping her as she was leaving his office one day to kiss her on the lips.

Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, New York’s two U.S. senators, and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have also called for an independent investigation.

It’s hard to imagine a bright political future for Cuomo at this point, especially with the FBI and U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York investigating his administration’s handling of COVID-19 in nursing homes. He may be toast. I don’t know. I’ve never been good at, or all that interested in, predicting the future.

But I do find one detail in this whole sordid saga particularly troubling, and that’s the fact that Cuomo told The New York Times he believed he was acting as “a mentor” to Bennett.

I’m reminded of a 2019 LeanIn.org survey that looked at the impact the #MeToo movement had on workplace interactions. The survey found 60% of male managers were uncomfortable participating in a common work activity with a woman, such as mentoring — a 32% jump from a year prior. Thirty-six percent of surveyed men said they had avoided mentoring or socializing with a woman because they were nervous about how it would look.

Senior-level men said they were more hesitant to spend time with junior women than with junior men in a range of capacities: They were 12 times more likely to hesitate to have one-on-one meetings with junior women than junior men, nine times more likely to hesitate to travel for work with junior women than junior men, and six times more likely to hesitate to schedule work dinners with junior women than junior men.

Those statistics are obviously lousy news for anyone interested in women advancing in the workplace — which should be everyone, since workplaces, families and communities all benefit tremendously from women’s voices, talents and financial security.

Which is why Cuomo imagining himself as Bennett’s mentor, even as he acknowledges interactions that had little to do with Bennett’s professional growth and everything to do with the maintenance of his ego, is just galling.

“At work sometimes I think I am being playful and make jokes that I think are funny. I do, on occasion, tease people in what I think is a good-natured way. I do it in public and in private,” his statement reads. “I have teased people about their personal lives, their relationships, about getting married or not getting married. I mean no offense and only attempt to add some levity and banter to what is a very serious business.”

Mentors help you understand and navigate the unique culture of a place. They advocate for you in meetings, whether or not you’re there to see it. They coach you on asking for a raise and point you toward opportunities you may not have the confidence to pursue without some nudging.

They are invested in your professional success. Your sex life is none of their business. Their sex life is none of yours. This is true whether there’s a one-year age gap or you’re the same age as your mentor’s twin daughters. (Eww.)

It seems like this would go without saying, but maybe we’re not there yet. Maybe there’s still a persistent, moldy style of power broker who needs to be reminded that female colleagues and subordinates are humans, just like you, showing up to do their jobs and use their brains and contribute to the cause — which is never, not ever, not even once, your sex life.

Heidi Stevens writes a column for the Chicago Tribune. Her email address is hstevens@chicagotribune.com.

 

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