In conversation with a mentor this International Women’s Day

group of students working on computers and interacting

Why mentoring women matters

According to the National Centre for Women and Information Technology, despite 80 percent of women working in Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) careers reporting that they love their work, 32 percent are likely to quit their jobs within a year.

In the technology industry in particular, the rate at which women quit is more than double that of men, and one of the biggest barriers identified for the advancement of women in technology is a lack of female mentors and role models in the workplace.

year-long study on the value of mentorship found that for women in STEM, mentors in the workplace are like “social vaccines.” Just as medical vaccines protect your immune system against infections, so too do mentors protect your mind against the effects of negative biases in the workplace.

The study showed that when women engineering undergraduates were paired with a female mentor, they were less likely to drop out of their courses, were more motivated, self-assured, and more prone to looking for engineering jobs after graduation.

These findings are supported by recent research commissioned by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) which found that mentorship programmes improve girls’ and women’s participation and confidence in STEM studies and careers.

The research confirmed that the presence of female role models in STEM subjects can mitigate negative stereotypes and offer girls an authentic understanding of STEM careers. This contact can begin as early as primary education, and continue through secondary and tertiary levels and into career entry.

As a company that prides itself on encouraging diversity and inclusion in the workplace, we sat down with Mirianis Rodriguez, a storyteller at Microsoft who also mentors women-led social enterprises through the Trade + Impact platform in Morocco,  Amrote Abdella, regional director of the Microsoft 4Afrika Initiative, as well as Diana Kelley, cybersecurity field CTO at Microsoft, to find out more about how we can encourage mentoring for the next generation of female industry leaders.

The mentoring manual – Empathy is key
According to Rodriguez whose career has spanned over 20 years, an effective mentor should create an open environment for his or her mentees to express themselves and be heard. “Key attributes like being empathetic, nurturing and an active listener ensure that the mentor serves as a guiding voice and not a commanding lead in the mentoring journey,” she says.

Mentors for women in STEM
“As a young woman, it’s important to have a mentor to help you navigate the landscape and understand the ways a professional can pave their career in the tech industry. As more and more women are encouraged to get into STEM – it’s equally important to maintain that level of support and network as young girls and women transition from their studies and settle into their professional careers,” says Abdella. The same advice rings true for Rodriguez, “It’s crucial for young women entering the workforce in any field to have one or more mentors in order to quickly acclimate and build confidence in their new environment. In the tech industry, even more so.”

 “Lift as we rise”

With decades of IT and cybersecurity experience working as an advisor to numerous CISOs, CIOs, and CSOs at some of the world’s largest companies, Diana’s Kelley’s long and illustrious career has helped her pinpoint some of the ways we can break down gender barriers and encourage more women and underrepresented groups to pursue careers in tech and cybersecurity.

This includes a holistic approach that addresses the systemic issues contributing to the low representation of women in the field as well as the issues in the workplace that repel many women from pursuing a career in cybersecurity.

“Systemically – we can eliminate bias in the educational system so diverse populations can get the education they need to prepare for careers in cybersecurity. In the workplace, we can support diversity by ensuring bias is removed and a culture of respect is nurtured. And individually, we can employ a tactic that my Microsoft colleague Lisa Lee refers to as ‘lift as we rise’ – which entails us being mentors, sounding boards and supportive advisors to those who are entering the field or facing challenges that are making them doubt their ability to succeed.”

The best mentors aren’t cheerleaders – they’re coaches
“As women, we tend to be more modest and self-critical than our male counterparts. You can multiply that tenfold when you consider the gender gap that exists in the tech industry,” adds Rodriguez. “This can put us at a huge disadvantage when opportunities rise to pitch a business idea or ask for a promotion for example. A mentor can help coach you to remove those self-imposed mental barriers and reaffirm capabilities for potential opportunities.”

Women empowering women
In Rodriguez’s opinion there’s something very special about women mentoring other women. “We are able to understand each other at a deeper level because we carry the female heart,” she says. She’s been mentoring women for over ten years and says it is such a gratifying experience to see her mentees flourish in their own capabilities and take these newfound attributes and use them for the greater good.

When asked if having a female mentor made a difference to her career, Abdella had the following to say: “In my earlier years, I don’t think it made a difference to me but once I became a mother, I really looked to other women who are balancing work and family life to learn from them. In that aspect, having a female mentor became crucial for me as I learned to navigate the balance.”

Mirianis Rodriguez, a storyteller at Microsoft and mentor of women-led social enterprises through the Trade + Impact platform in Morocco.

If the shoe fits…
Rodriguez’s advice for how women in the tech industry can go about finding the right mentor to help them think strategically about setting themselves up for success is simple. “Finding the right mentor is like finding the right pair of shoes. You already know what you want and need and as soon as you spot it, you know it’s for you. If you admire someone, their work, their lifestyle, their leadership, simply go up and ask them if they would be willing to share their wisdom with you. A true leader will never say no to that. The key is, you have to ask!”

Abdella’s advice on finding the right mentor takes a similar vein. “You can ask someone to directly be your mentor but the most value you will drive is when you have a shared goal or interest, around work or your personal life that can help build a relationship between you and your mentor.”

There’s power in being personal
According to Rodriguez mentors who can personally relate to their mentees by sharing their own life experiences are the most successful type of mentors. There is a lot of power in sharing and amplifying the voices and experiences of inspiring leaders who have overcome the odds especially in an environment where female representation is lacking. “At the end of the day, mentorship is a social contract between two individuals. When it’s built on a relationship as opposed to a role assignment of ‘mentor’ and ‘mentee’ I think both can drive value from it,” concludes Abdella

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