“I was trying to be a mentor to her.”
Cuomo, a Democrat, has now been accused of sexual harassment by two former aides and an unwanted advance by a third woman. The governor roundly denied the allegations made by Lindsey Boylan, 36, who published an essay on Wednesday claiming Cuomo subjected her to an unwanted kiss in 2018, as well as a series of inappropriate comments, including the suggestion that they play “strip poker” in 2017. In a New York Times article published Saturday, a second woman, Charlotte Bennett, 25, said Cuomo asked her about her sex life in the spring of 2020 and attempted to gauge her interest in older men. A third article, published Monday, includes an allegation from Anna Ruch, 33, who says the governor put his hands on her cheeks and her bare back at a party, asking if he could kiss her.
Cuomo issued a second statement about Bennett’s allegations on Sunday, acknowledging that his comments may have been “insensitive and “misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation.”
“To the extent anyone felt that way, I am truly sorry about that,” he wrote. (Cuomo’s office referred The Lily to this statement.)
Men accused of sexual harassment often characterize their behavior as mentorship, said Nadia Brown, a politics professor at Purdue University who has written about mentorship and the #MeToo movement. Across industries, she said, it’s an approach used to skirt responsibility: While they were trying to help women get ahead, men will say, their behavior was misinterpreted. When Cuomo mounted his mentorship defense on Saturday, many women bristled, viewing it as a way to imply that he did nothing wrong.
“There is an implicit suggestion that this is just what it means to be close to someone at work,” said Emily Martin, vice president for education and workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center.
Cuomo has yet to take responsibility for his “predatory behavior,” Bennett said in a statement on Monday. After working in the New York state government through the state’s darkest days of the pandemic, Bennett left her job in November and now works in women’s health.
“He was not acting as a mentor, and his remarks were not misunderstood by Ms. Bennett,” Debra Katz, Bennett’s attorney, told the Times. “He was abusing his power over her for sex.”
Maybe Cuomo honestly sees his behavior as an organic part of “mentoring,” said Brown. The word is broad — probably too broad, she said — and it’s possible that the governor, 63, felt his comments fell under the umbrella of a close mentor-mentee relationship.
That wouldn’t make his behavior any more acceptable, she said.
By describing himself as a “mentor,” Brown said, Cuomo has almost certainly forced many women to “relive and re-question” similar workplace relationships they’ve had with older, more powerful men.
Emily, a 28-year-old based in California who spoke on the condition that The Lily use only her first name, immediately recognized herself in Bennett’s story. When she saw the word “mentor,” she said, she was “triggered by it.” Cuomo’s defense reminded her of a male colleague 30 years her senior, who she felt tried to pursue her romantically.
Emily identified with Bennett’s description of her early days working for Cuomo. In the Times article, Bennett recalls calling her family members, thrilled that the governor has taken such an active interest in her career.
“I had a similar conversation with my mom, where I was so excited, saying, ‘Oh my God, this is happening, I got invited to this meeting, he’s really trusting me,’ ” said Emily. “I really felt like I was going places.”
The male colleague sent her a steady stream of emails that “started to feel kind of weird,” Emily said. He would constantly tell her how lucky he was to work with her, she said, and congratulate her on every small task she completed. He stayed behind at meetings to talk to her, paying her far more attention than anyone else on the team, including a male colleague her age whose work lined up with his specialty. Emily questioned whether his romantic interest was all in her head, she said — maybe he was just being “paternalistic.” Then he sent her a personal email to check in on New Year’s Eve.
Because the colleague had cast himself as her mentor, Emily said, she felt paralyzed: Who would she tell about this behavior? And would it even be clear the male colleague was doing anything wrong?
Reading Cuomo’s statement, Emily said, she was reminded of one of her fears: Maybe her colleagues thought romantic attention was always “within the realm of possibility” in mentoring relationships between older men and younger women.
“Women are reacting to the notion that if you want to be mentored, if you want to be given that sort of professional guidance, you have to accept what’s dished out,” said Martin, from the National Women’s Law Center. “It feels like that’s the price of having someone take an interest in your success.”
Predatory behavior from a “mentor” can be particularly painful, said Martin, because it comes with a “sense of betrayal.” By definition, she said, a mentor is someone you trust, who you believe to be genuinely invested in your success.
“You wonder: ‘Is there something I did to bring this about? Who can I trust?’ ” said Brown, the politics professor: “These are all questions that go through the heads of survivors who have been harassed by a mentor.”
It can also be difficult to hold a mentor accountable, said Martin. The victim might be reluctant to come forward, aware of the skewed power differential — and how the mentor might be able to harm her career.
The allegations against Cuomo will probably provide fodder for the “myth that it’s ‘dangerous’ for men to mentor women, so men should avoid taking on female proteges,” said Lilia Cortina, a professor of psychology and gender studies at the University of Michigan.
That’s certainly not the solution, said Martin. Women need male mentorship, she added — because men usually have the most power. If men in power aren’t sure what kind of behavior is appropriate, she said, they should seek out training.