Building A Community for Women in Tech: Mentorship and Sponsorship
In the spirit of Canada’s National Engineering Month back in March, and as we welcome a new wave of grads into the workforce, we’re sharing our top tips for inspiring students and young engineers to join the engineering field, stay motivated, and find the community they need to feel sense of belonging. In light of Covid-19’s isolation measures, there’s no better time to connect with community members for a video call to discuss their goals and how you can support them.
As an established woman in tech, one of your most valued contributions is mentorship and becoming a role model to others aspiring or entering into the field. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a role model as “a person looked to by others as an example to be imitated”. While there is a lot of overlap between role models and mentors or leaders, a role model is unique in that an individual can become a role model simply by nature of their role, activities, or personality. In many cases it is possible to be a role model to someone without even realizing it.
One of the most common barriers for women is the lack of available role models – whether they are entering STEM, seeking leadership positions, or pursuing similar roles in which we are under-represented. Without female leaders to look up to, girls and young women struggle to visualize a future for themselves in the positions they aspire to. With only 13 percent of US engineers and only 18 percent of Canadian engineers identifying as female, it is important that you consider the role you play in being a role model to a junior or incoming engineer someday. Young engineers and those in STEM will look to you as an example of their own career potential, as well as how to conduct themselves and advance their own careers in a historically male-centric field.
While we don’t necessarily get to choose whether we will be a role model, we do get to decide what kind of role model we are. Here are a couple of suggestions for ways to be a better role model for others:
- Embrace what makes you unique. Girls and young women often grow up trying to “blend in” and learn to suppress their unique qualities in order to do so. It is important for role models to confidently embrace their unique qualities – quirks, skills, and personality traits to name a few – to serve as a real-life example that diversity is a strength and not something to hide.
- Act with confidence. Confidence is a struggle for many of us; however, by acting confident (even when we may not feel it) we not only improve our own chances of developing the confidence we display, but we also provide a positive example for others to strive toward.
- Admit your mistakes and grow from them. An important part of developing confidence is to not be afraid of failure. Girls and young women need to learn through real-life example that a mistake is not something to be ashamed of, but rather a learning experience to help them improve themselves. Seeing a role model confidently own up to a mistake and emerge from it stronger will help to inspire others to take risks, take on bigger challenges, and create their own learning opportunities.
- Talk to everyone. Nobody is saying that you need to be the life of the party and a social butterfly (although if that’s your thing, all power to you!!!). Just be open with people. Go out of your way to say hi to the newer folks, or the shy and quiet ones, and let them know they are seen, acknowledged and their presence is valued. Compliment them and appreciate their best qualities and what they bring to the table. Being acknowledged by someone you look up to and who you view as confident and successful can help to break down the perceived barriers between who you are and who you want to become. It grounds the relationship in reality and makes the end goal feel more attainable.
So, you’ve accepted and embraced your status as a role model… what’s next? How can you continue to inspire and support the upcoming generation, and help push their careers to the next level?
- Become a mentor
While it is very possible and common to be a role model without being a mentor, for many this is a natural transition and it can have a huge impact on the upcoming generation.
One way to approach mentorship is through the development of a formal mentorship program or process. Amanda, one of the co-authors of this article, was instrumental in developing one such program within the controls group at Bastian Solutions a few years ago. In this program, every new hire is assigned a willing team member to be their mentor, starting from their first day on the job. The mentor meets with the mentee regularly, either in-person or remotely, to discuss their learning and development and any new challenges they are facing. They may collaborate on projects when possible, ultimately working together to build a relationship of confidence and trust. The mentor is there to help their mentee navigate the transition into their new role, answer questions, and provide guidance, as well as to help the mentee expand their network within and outside of the company so they can be confident and self-sufficient. The “official” mentorship program has a duration of 6 months to 1 year, but the goal is to build a lasting relationship that continues throughout both individuals’ careers.
In other situations, mentorship might take on a more organic process in which two people establish a supportive relationship and commit to building each other up. While mentorship is often perceived as a one-sided process, it is in reality a very mutually beneficial process – a mentor will typically get just as much learning and growth from this relationship as the mentee, if not more, and find themselves creatively challenged to reflect on their existing methods of analysis and problem-solving in favor of new ways of practicing their craft.
Most importantly, a mentor doesn’t have to know everything, and certainly is not there to solve all of the mentee’s problems. A mentor is simply a trusted individual who is there to use their own experiences to support and guide the mentee through their own growth and development. Someone to discuss challenges and opportunities with. Someone to share networks and resources with. Someone to talk to and someone to learn from. There is no specific criteria or formula for successful mentorship – just be genuine and supportive and let the relationship evolve.
- Be a sponsor
While mentorship is important, an equally important factor in an individual’s career growth and personal development is sponsorship. A sponsor is someone who is in a position to influence decision-making or facilitate career advancement, and who chooses to actively advocate for a particular employee. A sponsor uses her own influence to increase the visibility of and provide opportunities to the individual they are sponsoring. A sponsor ensures that successes are recognized by the right people within an organization, ensures credit is given for contributions made, and helps to connect them with valuable or high-profile assignments, positions, or opportunities to shine. Sponsorship can range from speaking up in support of an idea or initiative in a meeting to nominating an individual for an award or promotion to simply ensuring that a person’s name is appropriately connected to their recent accomplishment, idea, or project success.
The value in these supports is incalculable. Not only do mentorship and sponsorship foster a sense of connection when new hires join the team, it ensures that their growth is always monitored, and their growth nourished by someone with experience who has likely faced similar situations in the past. But you don’t have to sign on for a single mentee to support growth of new engineers. The Harvard Business Review discusses the idea of mentors-of-the-moment, a company culture of mentorship where each team member has the capacity and a responsibility to mentor junior colleagues. In this type of work environment, a new hire feels supported by every teammate, and receives assistance from everyone they encounter. The resulting interactions uplift the employees, creating safe spaces for learning, and the inevitable failures or mistakes, and fosters resilience, one of the key factors in the success of underrepresented groups in engineering.
What are mentees are looking for?
Many new hires are looking for the fastest way to learn the most important skills, valuing rapid feedback and the opportunity to try again. Mentors, role models and the mentor-of-the-moment culture ensure that we can always get this type of feedback and know we can get answers for the toughest questions of our careers from our colleagues. Mentors of the moment also support risk-taking and encourage junior team members to try new things, leading to greater creativity, and exposure to more ways of running projects, leading teams and solving the problems they may face every day, without creating silos for departments and divisions.
Who can be a mentor or mentee?
Mentees don’t just have to be junior engineers, and mentors don’t have to be senior engineers. All experienced members of a company can facilitate learning and development in any employee or peer. Engaging students and new hires in STEM does not start and stop with engineering. At Bastian Solutions, we recognize our diverse community, whose backgrounds in social media, business development, accounting, security and finance all ensure that our engineering work is successful. This article would not and could not be complete without a HUGE shout-out and a thank you to all of the ladies of WIT who fill the ever-important non-technical positions within our company. Not only are you filling valuable roles within the company as a whole, but your contributions as Women in Tech are incredibly important.
As engineers who either have been or currently are the only female engineers within our groups or offices, we are both incredibly grateful to you for being at our sides. Whether you’re a girly girl or a tomboy or somewhere in between, your fellowship, support and companionship help all of us to take comfort in expressing ourselves and embracing the unique qualities that we bring to the workplace. For that, and for all that you do, you are appreciated.
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