It’s been pretty well documented that there is a severe lack of diversity in the technology industry; but not only is the industry lacking the representation of women, it doesn’t take long to encounter the pervasive cultures that steer women away.
From booth babes at the biggest tech conferences, to Gamergate, to the even more recent and disappointing experience Susan Fowler shared about her experience at Uber. So we’ve got two challenges if we want to see greater representation of women in technology: we have to improve the talent pipeline of women into STEM, and then we have to create the culture that will not only encourage them to stay, but to thrive.
Over the past seven years I’ve had some incredible opportunities and some shockingly painful experiences as a woman in tech. I’ve also owned a business where the majority of our engineers were guys, and the majority of account managers were women.
Had I not had access to a network of supportive peers – other women, and a raft of wonderful feminist allies – and crucially, empowering mentors, I’m not sure I would have had the stamina to continue along this mad, love affair, journey in technology.
For full disclosure, I’m also coming from an incredibly privileged position. I’m a white, Western woman. I have a great education for which I took out a student loan, never worrying about whether I would be able to pay it back. I live in Brighton, a place celebrated for its inclusivity. I can’t even begin to imagine what this journey would have been like without that starting point advantage (just check out some of these figures on POC representation in tech)
A few tech businesses do offer internal mentorship schemes where the managerial team help match you with a senior person in your organisation and increase your upward mobility, but often this exercise can be a little blinkered to the cultural or systemic issues within an organisation. One of the most critical things I valued from my mentors was having an external perspective on things – and the more distance between my company and their opinion, the better. That said, not all company-initiated mentorship schemes are bad – you just need to be aware of the biases that might be implicit in that kind of setup.
So if you’re not signing up to an internal mentorship scheme, but feel like it could help you progress where do you begin? Organisations like SheSays, Ada’s List, Codebar and Black Girls Code are helping to advance a culture shift in technology by providing the networks, ideas and building the leaders we need to make change. If you’re a woman in tech looking for a safe space to help develop your career, to find a peer group to share experience, I can’t advocate groups like these enough. They’re also great places to find a mentor.
Mentorship often involves someone giving you their time for free. They help provide you with guidance, provide you with the support you need to solve your own problems or unanswered questions, and maintain confidentiality throughout. Unlike a business coach, who might equip you with a series of tools or strategies that will lead you to specific outcomes, mentorship is a much more personal and personalised relationship. The word ‘mentor’ itself is synonymous with advisor, guide, confidante; you’ll often hear people refer to their “mentor and friend”. In searching for a mentor, you need to look for a mutual relationship – someone that you’re going to enjoy spending time with, who will enjoy speaking with you in return.
Personally, I have always started that search by looking for someone who is in a position I would love to be in, or has had a career I admire.
They don’t necessarily have to be in the same industry, or even the same country. My mentors have included a serial entrepreneur in his fifties, a CMO of a legal firm and a Consultant / Art Director in New York. What they’ve all had in common is that I’ve had a deep respect for them, and I’ve seen successes I wish to emulate. That means that I’m incredibly appreciative of the time they’ve given me. They’ve also all been good friends, which hopefully means that they haven’t minded the times that I’ve called them, crying in a toilet cubicle (it happens) asking if I’m crazy (no diagnosis on that one yet).
I came across these three people in totally different circumstances; one was a former client, another was a friend of a friend who, as soon as I met her I knew I wanted to absorb as much knowledge from her as I possibly could, and the other was my employer and first big career break in tech. In each case, we fostered a friendship before I asked the individual if they would consider mentoring me – and in all cases, those people were flattered. Granted, I was the kind of nervous you get when you’re asking someone out on a date when I asked, but it was completely worth it.
Luckily, there are now more and more opportunities to help women find mentors in technology, especially in the UK through initiatives like DevelopHer. Speed mentoring has really kicked off, and is a great way to quickly work out whether you might have a good relationship with someone that could lead to mentoring.
When I took part in the SheSays Brighton speed mentoring day during Brighton Digital Festival, I met loads of talented women of all ages looking to find the support to help progress their careers in digital. Many attendees went away with a bolstered network of peers, and some really did meet their mentor. I began mentoring a woman twice my age who was looking to transition out of her highly-paid, senior, corporate tech role into building her own business. Had we not had the speed mentoring session to connect us, we probably wouldn’t have guessed that we’d be a great fit for each other – I can learn more about the corporate tech world from her, and she learns about going it alone from me.
If you’re looking for your first mentor, reach out to the people you find inspiring. Grab a coffee. Have real chat with them.
About the author:
With a career that runs the gamut of the creative and digital industries, Natalie has been making her mark in the UK and abroad for the past decade.
As Strategist at Pixeldot Creative, Natalie draws on her experience to help businesses reach their full digital potential. Spanning the UK, New York and Montpellier, previous roles include Director of MOHARA (formerly Say Digital); Curator and Producer of TEDxBrighton; Director of Marketing at Orange Logic; and creative consultancy for high-end photographers in New York and the UK.
A seasoned speaker, Natalie regularly gives talks on management, startups, innovation, creativity and women in technology. Other projects include Manner, SheSays Brighton, iSPY Visuals and What Women Want 2.0.