If there’s one thing a powerful older man needs in his life, it’s a younger woman. Although maybe not for the reason he might think.
The idea that junior women have something to teach their seniors is the genius insight behind ‘reverse mentoring’, a scheme adopted by the consultancy firm Ernst & Young among others which turns the usual professional coaching format – successful male helps younger woman get ahead – upside down. In reverse mentoring, she teaches him about everything from the way millennials approach work (no long hours for the sake of it) to the subtle ways mothers are disadvantaged in their careers. The idea is that messages delivered by a friendly human being with whom you have an emotional connection stick better than lectures from HR.
If it works, women’s careers should benefit but employees at all levels should also understand each other better and work together more efficiently – hopefully reducing grievances. Which makes you wonder: why doesn’t someone do this for politicians, pronto?
It takes humility, of course, to seek advice from someone way down the food chain. But listening to people less powerful than you is basically in a politician's job description
Imagine how many sex scandals could have been avoided if every ageing lothario was gently told by someone in a position to know that if a glamour model half your age propositions you, it may a lucrative kiss’n’tell deal she's after, not your body.
And then there's the case of the male MP who recently greeted the Spectator journalist Isabel Hardman with the words “I want to talk to the totty”. Since most female political reporters have similar stories to tell, perhaps many older male politicians would benefit from some brisk reverse mentoring on when it’s good to use the word “totty” (never), pinch reporters’ bottoms (never), or suggest you could really help a prospective parliamentary candidate’s career while putting a hand down her dress (just to be clear: never).
But that’s not all older men can learn from exposure to younger women’s thinking. According to research, US male congressmen with daughters old enough to get pregnant are more likely to vote for reproductive rights, presumably either because their daughters influence them directly or because they can more easily imagine what young women’s lives are like. Similarly, studies suggest male CEOs with daughters are more likely to pay women higher wages.
And good policy often happens at Westminster when the older men – and indeed older women –who still make most decisions listen to the twenty-somethings who so often staff their offices (and occasionally approach them as voters).
David Cameron took a personal interest in measures to get more women on corporate boards when one of the younger women in his office pointed out that the glossy magazines she and her non-political friends read were all over the issue. I know middle-aged MPs who finally grasped that internet abuse is a problem after seeing what their female aides put up with on social media and at least one older man (the Tory ex-shadow minister Bernard Jenkin) who took up the cudgels against VAT on tampons after being badgered into it by an A-level student. Oh, and since that student grew up to be the Labour MP Stella Creasy, it’s arguable reverse mentoring helps mentors too.
It takes humility, of course, to seek advice from someone way down the food chain. But listening to people less powerful than you is basically in a politician's job description. And besides, the risks of getting it even slightly wrong – using phrases that weren't offensive in their day but are now, or screwing up social media because they don’t understand how it works - are huge now that one clumsy moment can instantly go viral. Isn’t it time to learn from someone young enough to know better?