Effective approaches to mentoring women in tech

Mentoring women and men alike is a great way to enhance the talent of existing employees. Here are some ideas on how to make mentorship efforts effective for everyone, with an emphasis on inclusion for all.

Everyone knows that mentoring is an important factor in career success. But when I ask female leaders and entrepreneurs about the role of mentorship in their journeys, the answers are very interesting. Men often experience mentoring in a traditional "master/apprentice" relationship that lasts over the long term and is highly focused on the professional sphere. In contrast, women seek mentoring across areas from career to education to marriage, parenting, and work/life balance. They choose which mentor to speak with depending on the particular challenge they face. Here are some additional trends I've noticed in interviewing women about the role of mentoring women in their lives and careers.

Mentors and mentoring women

  • Women seeking leadership roles often report a lack of good mentors as an obstacle to their career growth. They may perceive it as difficult to find a mentor. Women may feel they are less likely to "be chosen" as a mentee by those higher in their organization. They have to ask directly for mentorship.

Meltem Ballan, Ph.D., a data scientist at consulting firm Clarity Insights who has a strong knowledge of big data problems, spoke about the challenges she has faced in finding good mentors. "I never had a mentor strongly standing behind me. I once had a female mentor but she didn't offer much support. I think she was afraid of someone taking her job. I've actually received more support from men. In particular, there was one older gentleman I would talk to if something went wrong or to figure out how to get around a problem and turn things around. But I've found it difficult to get the same mentorship men do." Ballan concluded that the most important step women can take in getting a good mentor is to reach out and ask.

Mentorship is about getting things done

  • Women tend to have many mentors throughout their lives rather than one or two long term engagements lasting through the decades. Mentoring engagements are often short term and highly focused on a particular outcome.

Being selective and strategic in mentoring women is essential. Tanis Cornell, Principal of TJC Consulting, pointed out that mentors can become friends. But that's not the point of the relationship. "When you are looking for mentors, think about what you need to learn, not just who you like." CeCe Morken, EVP and General Manager of ProConnect at Intuit, agreed that choosing mentors based on how they can help you develop is the smart move. "Be specific about what you are trying to grow and find people who are the best at it."

Women see value in being mentored by both sexes

  • Women report positive experiences with both male and female mentors. While female leaders can certainly offer deep insight into how to succeed as women, men offer value as well.

Charlene Schwindt, a software business unit manager serving the construction sector, offered her perspective on the benefits of having men as mentors, which is very likely given the gender gap in IT. "Interestingly, I've always had male mentors, which gave an alternative perspective." Getting a sneak peek into the minds of men at work proved invaluable. "When it comes to business, men can be thinking in a different way in approaching problems. Women tend to be more collaborative. Men are often more prone to strict decision-making and less likely to seek input." For Schwindt, understanding that men may need additional input but are not necessarily open to receiving it helped her learn to "manage up" more adroitly and grasp the politics at play in certain situations. She learned to finesse her communication to help those above her be more open to changing how they approached issues.

How can men be better mentors for women in tech?

Many women in tech feel a sneaking suspicion that they aren't receiving the same development as their male counterparts, but they can't quite put their finger on what's missing. I can relate. At one point in my own career, I worked in a primarily male department. My manager was absolutely terrific at managing women. But he hadn't figured out how to mentor them. He made sure the women who reported to him felt supported and heard. He did his best to reduce their day to day stress. He ensured they were happy. But how he interacted with the guys was completely different. He challenged them, pointed out where they could be better—showed them how to be tough enough to get things done. In short, he took a proactive role in developing the men who reported to him. It didn't surprise me that women would invariably transfer to another department when they were ready to advance their careers. It's doubtful my boss even realized he wasn't treating women and men the same way. He was simply doing his best to keep things running smoothly, but clearly workplace changes were needed.

Benefits of mentoring women

As a result of this experience, I asked my interviewees what men can do to be better mentors for women. Cornell mentioned Susan Colantuono's TedX talk on "The career advice you probably didn't get" as a wonderful resource for understanding how to close the gender gap in leadership. Like Colantuono, Cornell believes that strategic, business, and financial acumen are the aspects of mentoring that women are missing out on the most. Men just assume people already know this foundational information because they were taught it as a matter of course by their own mentors. In contrast, women are being told they need to work on things that, while important, are not as fundamental.

Cornell described the conundrum this way. "Soft skills only matter when that foundation is in place. We seem to be focused on teaching women to be confident versus teaching men the business. Women sometimes think they just need to have more confidence. But when you speak up, you need to know what you are talking about." In Cornell's case, a male mentor did take the time to teach her to read a profit and loss statement and to understand key metrics. To this day, she considers that lesson to be one of the greatest gifts she has ever received to help her career and to help her break into male-dominated industries.

When men open their eyes to the potential for development in the women around them, it's actually a growth opportunity for everyone involved. According to Schwindt, "I think if men would reach out to someone with potential and ask 'What do you think about this?' or draw out the women in the room, both would learn a lot."

How can women make the most of mentoring opportunities?

From being viewed as a rising star worthy of personal investment to deriving the greatest value from every minute spent with a mentor, here are a few parting pieces of advice from women in tech.

Don't be shy: Julie Hamrick, Founder and COO of Ignite Sales, pointed out that getting noticed by potential mentors may start by being willing to do something noteworthy. "I know many women who are early in careers and may be more introverted. They do fantastic work but don't reach out as much. Women should ask for something else to do, try to get on the good projects, speak up if they have something valuable to say, get noticed and known."

Seek constructive criticism: Cornell explained that being a mentee involves admitting there are things you don't know that you need to learn. "You have to have mentors you can be vulnerable with. Ask questions. Don't be needy, but have an ongoing dialogue. Ask how you are viewed by the organization. Men in particular are sometimes fearful to give a negative critique. Give them permission by asking questions like 'What can I improve on?' or 'How am I perceived?' Be specific."

Always follow through: Morken voiced frustration about mentees who ask for help but fail to continue with the journey. "Don't make the relationship episodic where you just check in after six months. Have a plan, document what you want to accomplish, be deliberate." Also, don't be shy about giving feedback. "Let your mentor know how they are doing." At Intuit, mentoring has been built into the development of male and female employees and monthly check-ins are the norm. It isn't left to chance. This may be one reason that the company is an industry role model for having a high percentage of women in technical and leadership roles. Morken revealed that this achievement wasn't easy. "It was hard to get there." The company had to take consistent, intentional action to narrow the gender gap. Based on the outcome so far, it was worth the effort.

As women take the initiative to seek out the mentorship they deserve and organizations invest in preparing high potential female employees for greatness, everyone wins. 

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