Are Mentorships The Key To More Women In Technology?

Posted by · January 17, 2012 1:36 pm

As one who is easily star-struck, I often wonder what it might be like to sit down with some of my favorite female tech celebs and pick their brain about how they got where they are—and what they do to maintain sanity (and meaningful relationships) in a fast-paced, male-dominated work environment.  At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) last week, I got about as close as I’ll probably ever get to chatting it up with Google VP Marissa Mayer, Hunch co-founder Caterina Fake, Cisco CTO Padmasree Warrior and CNET editor-in-chief Lindsey Turrentine as I had a front row seat for CNET’s Women in Tech panel.

From the moment the discussion began, it felt more like I was in a coffee shop (rather than the crowded lobby of the CES trade show floor) with all of them, talking about work and catching up on life. Rather than the standard banter about what we can do to get more women interested in technology, each woman shared career advice and tips for balancing personal and professional commitments while discussing why now, more than ever, the tech world is ready for a “female Mark Zuckerberg.”

Now is the time

Mayer, Fake, Warrior and Turrentine all agreed that male or female, now is an exciting time to be working in technology. While each woman acknowledged that more can certainly be done to encourage women to join the tech ranks, for them, it was less about how much further we need to go than how far we’ve come.

According to Warrior, the progress women have made in the industry over the last few years is largely due to the need for product designers and developers to possess multiple skill sets.

“When I first started working in this industry, product design and development were bifurcated, and that’s all changing very rapidly. You really have to have skill sets that combine everything–programming, user design, user experience, sociology, psychology—and women are much better at integrating across multiple domains than men.”

(What Warrior is really saying here is that men cannot multi-task.)

Fake, who does not have a background in programming herself, credits Apple and the company’s focus on the product’s aesthetic for the overall rise of the product designer. (Mayer shook her head in seeming agreement with Fake, and I began to wonder if she has an iPhone or an Android device.)

“Product design is a big opportunity for women,” Fake said. “To be truly successful in technology these days, you need to design products that people love, need and use.”

Leaving before you leave

Regardless of what field we are in, one of the biggest professional barriers for women is our personal lives.  The tension that exists between furthering our careers and raising a family often causes us to stop pursuing that promotion (after all, we’ll be taking maternity leave shortly) or as Turrentine called it, the “leaving before you leave” syndrome.

For Warrior, the most critical time in a woman’s career is the period in which she is deciding to start a family and she considers it her personal mission to make sure her employees don’t make a premature exit from the working world.

“A lot of women enter the workforce but leave after a few years because they are trying to decide whether they want to have a career at all. It’s at the juncture when they are deciding between work and family that women need to see that you can do both,” Warrior said. “People always ask me how I balance my work life and my professional life. I tell them ‘I only have one life,’ I don’t like the word balance because it seems like you’re always striving for perfection. There is no such thing.”

(Did anyone else just breathe a collective sigh of relief or utter an “Amen, sister” too?)

So how do these women balance work and family? Turrentine, Fake and Warrior said it’s all about making your kids part of your work life. When Warrior went on business trips when her son was young, she played the game “Where in the world is Mommy?” to help him get excited about her trip and learn more about the place she was travelling to.  Fake holds weekly “business meetings” with her daughter in which they recap their week and discuss what they would like to accomplish in the upcoming one.

Mayer, the only one in the group who does not have children yet, said her best piece of advice for finding “balance” is to find your rhythm and know what you need to do or not do in order to avoid getting resentful of your job.

“I don’t think burnout is specifically related to working 80 hours a week or not getting enough sleep.  For most people, burning out is a result of the fact that they continually have to miss out on things,” Mayer said.  “People get resentful because they worked late and had to miss out on dinner with friends or their kid’s soccer game.  You need to figure out what it is you need to do or not do in order to not get resentful about your job.  As a manager, if someone on my team says they need to make it to a Tuesday night dinner with friends or their daughter’s weekly soccer game, it’s my job to make sure they get there because they’ll be that much more satisfied with their job the rest of the week.”

Mentoring for success

As Warrior so aptly pointed out: “It’s not that anyone can translate your experience to theirs, but it’s relating a story that tells people how you dealt with a situation that often helps people the most.”

Listening to these women share their personal experiences, I realized that while offering more computer science courses in high school and showing young women the diverse technology-related career paths that they can take are all great ideas, the real way to get more women to enter and stay in the technology industry is through mentoring.

After just 60 minutes of listening to Mayer, Fake, Warrior and Turrentine share their experiences, I felt encouraged about my own personal career and hopeful that despite what my own self-doubt and fear told me, I would be able to one day negotiate the tension between work and family.  I’m sure that I speak for a lot of other women when I say that I could use that guidance and reassurance more than just once a year. So maybe we don’t need more funding, more computer science classes or a computer in the hand of every young women after all. Perhaps all we really need is a cup of coffee and some good conversation.

  • Well said. Well done.

  • Loved your article. I could not agree more with the power of a good conversation. Thanks for the article!

  • Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment, Anne and Barb!