How do we mentor women when there aren’t enough female role models?

“Where are the women? How do we engage more of them?” This concern has been posed to me in three different contexts in the past two weeks, and in each case, I’m very pleased to say, by men. The specific questions, coming from diverse perspectives, were:

  1. We need more women in IT. What can we do to reverse the long-time overwhelming predominance of men in the field?
  2. How do we encourage more women to become entrepreneurs in the realm of technology startups? We have a vibrant and growing “ecosystem” of innovation and commercialization in our region, but very few women taking up that particular opportunity/challenge.
  3. We need to address the gender imbalance in leadership. How do we encourage more good women to apply for management positions, in particular in senior management and on corporate boards?

Of course there are different answers to each of these questions, but needless to say there are common threads, especially between the first two. [Each question is worthy of at least one separate post, but for now I’ll concentrate on some key points that more or less apply to all of them.]

Why does it matter?

  1. In areas of economic growth like IT, where there is a need for far more qualified employees, we’re missing out on a lot of opportunity when 50% of our population isn’t convinced it’s for them.
  2. New technology is typically used by all age groups and genders and yet it’s mostly designed by young men. Think about it.
  3. Women are entrepreneurial, which is demonstrated by the increasing numbers of women who are running small businesses or otherwise self-employed. However, they’re not likely to consider making overtures in the technology domain unless we can be more successful in interesting young women in studying CS, IT, and engineering. And very few small businesses run by women take the step of becoming medium-size enterprises. SMEs are the backbone of a strong economy; they provide solid employment and increase the tax base.
  4. Without women in management roles – and others who can add a more diverse perspective – too many decisions that affect us all are being made from one perspective only. This is not healthy for any of us.

What are the stumbling blocks?

  1. For whatever reason, and certainly there are exceptions, young women tend to shy away from programs with math requirements unless they have top marks in high school, whereas young men don’t seem to see their mediocre math marks as an issue or an impediment to entering the field of CS or engineering. This insecurity on the part of young women and over-confidence on the part of young men has always fascinated me.
  2. Similarly, and of course there are exceptions, women don’t naturally see themselves as leaders, especially in business situations. Many men have that expectation in mind from the time they are very young. Competent women need to have the suggestion planted – over and over again – until the possibility takes root, and then they need to be nurtured (mentored).
  3. There is another factor at play with respect to management. The current U.S. election reminds us all that the atmosphere in some management areas is not too pleasant for women. I appreciate that many – perhaps most – men find sexism as abhorrent as women do, but (1) they are not the potential butt of it and (2) they typically don’t even recognize it unless the person is truly creepy. Accordingly, many women are very wary of entering the fray.
  4. Although I don’t necessarily see it this way myself, most women find a meeting filled with only men intimidating, even intentionally so. It is difficult to get beyond the sense of the “old boys’ club”, even when this is not really the case. Classrooms mostly filled with young men pose a similar sense of discomfort for some of the far fewer women in CS and engineering.


What can be done?

If we want a society in which both men and women can contribute to their full potential, then changing this landscape is important. I am proud to know the men who asked me these questions in the first place, since they obviously believe this. But the changes won’t come by having the few women who have penetrated these domains take on even more mentoring roles. There aren’t enough of us, and we’ve been trying that for many, many years. A female-only panel discussion or two to share challenges and rewards from time to time might be useful, but we can’t be the main voice. We’ve been a voice in the wilderness. We need to have more men believe that this is important, and have more men encouraging their daughters, wives, sisters and female colleagues. And men need to understand that they are a critical part of making the change happen.

Having been in the technology industry since before it was called a technology industry, and having been in management positions in the mostly male preserve of computer science, I didn’t have female role models or mentors. I had male mentors. They work just fine. In fact, it may be that they are even more persuasive; since they could be advocating for men instead, so they must mean it!

My most effective mentor has always been my husband. I think it may be more of a female “thing” that when we are presented with a new opportunity, our natural inclination is to come up with reasons why we couldn’t possibly take on a new challenge. When we feel insecure we can always fall back on the “family responsibilities” excuse. My husband’s response has always been “Why not?” And he has always come up with solutions as to how we could accommodate family responsibilities together, including him teaching our sons how to do their own laundry when they were fairly young. The reality is that most women will find when they take on a new challenge that they are indeed as capable as the next person and that they really do have something to offer. It’s a good feeling.

Other mentors have been male colleagues and bosses, including my former engineering dean who was not known for his soft and fuzzy side. These men saw potential in me that I would never have seen in myself in a million years. They encouraged me to apply for positions, more than once. This is the first and most important step in mentoring.  The support follows.

Hopefully, when there are more women in currently male-dominated careers more young women will just naturally see those opportunities as something they might strive for. But we aren’t anywhere near that situation at the moment. So to get there we need you lovely men to spend time talking about this amongst yourselves. It can’t just be the insightful men who posed these questions to me and it can’t just be Justin Trudeau, who appointed (highly qualified) women to 50% of his cabinet positions because it was the right thing to do. It has to be husbands, fathers, friends, and colleagues who see potential in their wives, daughters, and female colleagues and encourage them to pursue options normally considered a male preserve. I can tell you that they won’t think of it on their own. Encourage your daughters and friends’ daughters to consider studying computer science or engineering, and reassure them that they don’t need the highest marks in their math class in order to succeed. Let them know that they are just as good as their brothers and should have the same expectations. Encourage your daughters, wives, and female colleagues to step up to managerial roles. Encourage your daughters and wives to consider entrepreneurial undertakings. There’s a whole world out there that needs more women!

We don’t want women to take over the world (although there are days …), but surely it is in everyone’s best interest to have everyone making the most effective and personally satisfying contribution they can to our society. Guys, we need your help!

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8 Responses to How do we mentor women when there aren’t enough female role models?

  1. Thanks for your call to action, Jane! There are a lot of great role models in my company who have truely influential positions, such as distinguished engineer or fellow or president of the Academy of Technology. The problem however is that the decision who is groomed and prepared to be promoted to the levels that matter are made in the countries in the Lines of Business. And not every country and every LoB is as woman friendly as the next. This is why some very talented women never will make it to the top unless they move geography, no matter what they achieve and how much mentoring they seek for. This means that there is a lack of LOCAL role models, people just like you and me. I would really like to get in touch with women from other IT companies to exchange ideas and experiences to figure out how to deal with these issues.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Lydia, for a number of years we had local and regional groups of women trying to work on these issues, just as we have people within our university computer science departments working hard to attract more young women into the field. Boy, it is a challenge. And in my experience what happens is that eventually these very committed women get worn out by carrying the load and hope that someone else will pick up the lead. That is not always forthcoming. The exact same thing happens in trying to get more women to enter politics, corporate boards, and, of course, upper management. It would be nice if one of the first questions asked when interviewing someone for a top managerial role, male or female (but usually male), were: (1) How committed are you to promoting diversity in management, including women and visible minorities? and (2) What plans do you have for making that happen? Perhaps we could add, how do you promote mentorship across an organization?

  2. Hélène Savoie says:

    Great read, thank you! I see the same issues in skilled trades, where we are having a problem integrating more women in a male dominated environment!

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Hélène. Yes, for sure convincing women that there’s a bright future for them in the trades would have similar challenges. I think we need some men with strong leadership skills to join in encouraging – and welcoming – women into these areas, but it has continued to be a challenge for so long!

  3. jennypellett says:

    I absolutely take your point that more girls should have a go at Computer science, Maths and Engineering even if their initial grades may persuade them otherwise. (Although believe it or not, Engineering was one of the recently culled subjects at A level that I blogged about last week). However, I also think it’s up to parents to approach their parental responsibilities wisely and teach sons that they are only half of an equation! Not all fathers, even now, are as liberated as yours was with your boys (lucky them and you!) so for many men in the workplace, the idea of nurturing and encouragement is anathema, sadly.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I had noticed that engineering was on your list, and shook my head, along with so many of the other subjects. The older I get the more it seems that I have lived in a bubble, for the most part surrounded by people – both men and women – who try to do the right things for the right reasons. And increasingly, especially with the younger generation, what I see personally is far more sincere and committed co-parenting. For one thing, everyone works, and sharing is part of that equation. But clearly not everyone is inside this bubble. And the longer this horrific election campaign continues in the U.S., with the presumably accepted utter disregard for common decency, the more I think that I must have missed a lot of signals along the way. If our societies are to continue to improve, trying to support the ability for ALL citizens to live with dignity and respect, then we have to find effective ways to make some truly fundamental changes. This has not been an uplifting year nearly anywhere in the world. And even in places where things are better (I would count Canada in that category, not to say we don’t have plenty of challenges and shortcomings (just ask our aboriginal communities)), no societies can or should stand in isolation these days. You’re right, it is indeed sad if men in the workplace (and women) don’t appreciate the importance of nurturing good employees. It’s called enlightened management! 😦

  4. alesiablogs says:

    I like that you tackle a subject with so many ideas. It is interesting too you took your male role models and gave them their just do. After all it’s not all about us! But mostly it should be! 🙀😉

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