Why mentorship is key to closing the tech gender gap

4 min read
Claire Karjalainen
  •  Mar 10, 2017
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The technology field tends to glorify the individual. Every day we hear about remarkable founders, influential influencers, popular speakers.

We praise the narrative of the “self-motivated individual conquering all odds through sheer will” so much, it can obscure the truth—most tech success stories happen because people in positions to share their knowledge and open doors did just that.

“None of us walk alone.”

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To celebrate International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, we asked some of the amazing women of InVision to share their experiences building careers in tech.

Every one of these remarkable women credited mentors and managers—both men and women—with helping to accelerate their careers.

Our panel:

What has been your experience with mentorship? Did you have mentors?

CAROL: I’ve never found a successful means of having formal mentors, but I’ve learned to approach every relationship as a learning opportunity—whether it’s with peers, managers, or people in other departments.

Related: How to find your design mentor

I like to identify specific things that I admire in people and think of them as role models for those things. I observe aspects like their manner of speaking, their presentation style, their curiosity, and I take a mental note of how I can model my behavior to improve myself in those areas.

JESSICA: I agree. Seek out mentorship, not mentors.Twitter Logo Don’t search LinkedIn and ask people to be your mentor. Mentorship is not a formal relationship—it develops naturally and organically and can come from anyone. For example, if you see someone give a rocking presentation, ask how they did it or what advice they have. Or perhaps ask someone you trust who else in their network you should speak with.

“Mentorship develops naturally and organically—and it can come from anyone.”

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LINDSEY S.: The best boss I’ve ever had was also my best mentor. He took the time to help me with my career and gave me the confidence that I had what it takes to be successful.

I would say find someone whose job you love and who you want to emulate, and then bring solutions to that person. Bring them a challenge that you think you can solve and ask for their advice in doing so. Really smart people want to mentor individuals who take initiative to solve problems.Twitter Logo If you frame your approach in that context, they’re more likely to take the time to help you.

LORI: In my career, I’ve been incredibly blessed to have men who took me under their wing and nurtured me, but I’ve definitely received a lot of interesting responses from clients and partners. And then as my career grew, I was in a fairly high-level position at IBM and at several companies since then.

I’ve had wonderful career managers and counselors who had nothing but generosity in giving their time and energy to groom me into something more than I was. I’ve benefited so much from that.

NATASHA: Same here. I hesitate to describe my career path without explaining that it was the result of a series of mentorships to which I’ll always be indebted.

I was only able to grow my career because each time I took on a new role, my coworkers went out of their way for months to teach me and show me how to learn more on my own. I’m so grateful for that and consider it a life obligation to provide the same kind of support and encouragement to people who are interested in getting more technical.

What kinds of mentorship do you want to see in your field?

LORI: I’d like the conversation to center more often around the fact that men have just as much responsibility in this area as women do—and maybe even more so. This isn’t a female problem. This is a person problem. Let’s hire the best person no matter what their race, creed—I don’t care. Let’s hire the best person for the job, and then work with them to shore up their strengths and overcome their weaknesses.

“It’s important that women help women, but let’s not let men off the hook.”

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I often struggle with this idea of “women helping women.” Men can help women. And women can help men. It’s less about gender and more about leadership. Yes, it’s important that women help women, but let’s not let men off the hook. We’re all in this together.

We should be focused on capabilities and skills. Still, we all know there’s bias in the workplace today. So I do have little heart strings to women who are building their careers, and I do step up and try to be visible and available to them.

LINDSEY S.: I’d like to see us train supervisors of any gender to be on the lookout for the phenomenon where the squeaky wheel is getting promoted instead of promotions by holistic performance.

It’s a bias that can happen without meaning to, and we all need to be aware and coach direct reports on it too. I think sometimes we can get caught up in trying to be too fair and treating everyone exactly the same, so managers might not be comfortable saying to a woman, “You may not be as comfortable with speaking up for a raise or promotion, but here are some ways you can overcome that.”

“Instead of promoting a squeaky wheel, promote based on holistic performance.”

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But I got a lot out of having a mentor who called it out for me and helped me recognize that potential blind spot, and encouraged me to go for things like raises and promotions.

CAROL: Many of my mentors have been peers. And many of my peer relationships have ended up being friendships that have persisted outside of the work environment, which ultimately becomes a personal network. This to me is invaluable, because these are real relationships—not artificial networking—that I’ve been able to reach out to for career advice, job opportunities, interview tips, and more.

Don’t be afraid to reach out to your network to ask for helpTwitter Logo—most people are more than happy to share their expertise and knowledge if you’ve built a strong relationship in the past!

JENNIFER: I’d like to see more designers mentoring junior designers. So many junior designers are discouraged by the lack of available jobs that they’re abandoning their dreams of being part of our industry. It’s tragic—and it’s a huge loss for all of us.

I’ve been so focused on my own career that until very recently I hadn’t even given mentoring a second thought. Then this amazing woman, full of design passion and willingness to learn everything she can, asked me to mentor her.

Not going to lie, my first sentence was, “I have no idea what a mentor does.”

She responded, “Well, if you don’t try it, you’ll never know. And besides, you’re already doing it!” (See? Spunky! Love her.)

So that’s how I became a mentor. At first I felt completely unqualified, but then it finally dawned on me: You don’t need 10 years of experience to be a mentor—you just need more than your mentee.

Even if you’ve only been in the industry for a year or 2, helping someone else navigate that first crazy year will be massively appreciated.

The moral of this story? Give junior designers a chance to learn and become great! And please, please consider mentoring a newbie—they’re the future of our industry! I even started a small area for mentors and mentees to connect here.

Next up in the InVision Women in Tech series: 6 tips for women—and everyone—to build strong tech careers. Did you miss the first post? Check it out here.

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