How mentoring can tackle the gender representation issue in tech

The technology sector has a representation issue. According to the Office of National Statistics, just 3.9% of the UK’s tech and telco professionals are female programmers and software developers. And this number has fallen, from 10%, since 2007.

Female representation in the sector, especially at more senior levels, has not significantly improved in recent years, even though most people now accept the strong ‘business case’ for diverse teams.

A significant amount of research in the past decade has shown that more women, and more diversity generally, at every level of seniority, creates strong benefits for companies. For example, a study from McKinsey has shown companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians.

>See also: Insider: Women in the technology industry

A balanced team, with people from different backgrounds and experiences, will logically produce better ideas and a more creative approach to solving complex problems.

They will build more relevant solutions to serve their customers and assess risk more wisely. Diversity comes from many angles and gender is only one of them, but it’s an obvious one to tackle because it’s half the population.

There is a lot of work to do to nurture female talent to progress to a senior level. It requires political evolution and cultural shifts, which take time. But each of us at our own level can make a difference by mentoring.

Matching women of all levels to those with more experience (men and women) can have a very tangible, beneficial impact in tackling gender imbalance in our industry. What’s more, it’s an incredibly simple initiative to champion and activate.

>See also: Final verdict: Meet the Judges for the Women in IT Awards

There is as much in it for mentees as there is for mentors (if not more for the latter). For those seeking a mentor or wishing to mentor others, here are four key benefits of mentoring from my experiences on both sides of the coin.

Solve problems better and with confidence

Your mentors will help you solve problems faster and better than you can do on your own. Their time is precious and so is yours, so come prepared to each session: choose the problem you want to solve with your mentor(s), describe the context succinctly, identify the issues and bring the facts. Done well, the preparation for your session is part of the development process and a powerful exercise.

As a mentor, you get to practise your skills too: active listening, breaking down issues and getting to the core of a problem fast. Together, you can quickly get to a solid solution – and because you got support from someone else, you will find yourself more confident in implementing the solution.

>See also: Creating a balanced, effective workforce with diverse talent

Having more than one mentor will give you different perspectives. Look for both male and female mentors, inside your organisation and out. The best way to find a mentor is to simply reach out directly to someone you’d like regular advice from (in your organisation or through your wider contacts); more often than not you will find people feel privileged to be asked to help you on your professional journey.

Whether just starting out in your career or several years in, it’s always the right time to create your own ‘advisory board’ of mentors.

Reach beyond your comfort zone

One of the first sessions with your mentor will logically be about what you want to achieve in your career, and it’s an important question. In my tenure, I have found women are generally less prepared to answer the questions: ‘What do you want to do in 5 years?’ and ‘Who do you want to be?’. It’s easier to go places if you know where you want to go.

A mentor is not a boss; in confidence, she/he can ask the questions which will help you articulate your goals 3-5 years out, and help you push the limits of what the next five years could be.

>See also: Embracing women in cyber security: bridging the talent gap

Look for at least one mentor who is five years ahead in their career. Mentors who are more senior will provide valuable insight into the business on a macro level, giving you perspectives you are not exposed to naturally and guiding you in navigating workplace politics. They should help you see some of the bigger issues and they can introduce you to other people who can support your journey. Your advisory board of mentors will help you see the world with augmented reality.

Break your own internal barriers

Research shows that, on average, women have less confidence than men. An often-cited example: when looking at their next role, women will typically be more cautious, less self-assured and less open to taking risks (or just more conscious of the risks). They avoid applying for roles they feel unqualified for. This confidence gap must be addressed and, again, mentoring can play an important role.

While nobody should apply for roles beyond their competence set entirely, or be disingenuous about their experience, women need the confidence to say: “I might not tick every box, but I can do it, and here’s why”. Having exposure to female and male mentors who have tried, failed and succeeded can open doors that, previously, a mentee would not have dared knock at. A good mentor will push you out of your comfort zone and challenge you in a way that builds confidence.

>See also: EXCLUSIVE: Puppet exec on the gender gap within the tech industry

A mentor of Sophie Krishnan, UK general manager at Trainline, used to ask this question: ‘What are your barriers?’ His point was that most of our barriers are those that we set for ourselves. Women may think they’re not good at numbers, or they’re intimidated by technology, or they don’t have the confidence to lead a bigger team but, often, the only thing standing in in the way is self-perception.

Note to self….

Mentees ask a lot of questions. “As a mentor, I try to help them find the answers themselves,” explains Krishnan. “I also share my own relevant experiences to help them get there. It sometimes strikes me that the advice I give is not always what I apply to myself, so I’ll often make a ‘note to self’ and go back to the office with one thing to change and do better.”

“I have grown tremendously with my mentors and I owe each of them a lot; I have gone to places I would have never reached without them and I am extremely grateful. I have also grown tremendously with my mentees, thinking through their challenges, has helped me discover new ways to tackle my own. And there is a very human joy in helping someone else develop and become better every day.”

 

Sourced by Sophie Krishnan, UK general manager, Trainline

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Nick Ismail

Nick Ismail is the editor for Information Age. He has a particular interest in smart technologies, AI and cyber security.

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