When we think about improving gender diversity in technology, many assume quotas or recruitment targets are the answer. However, while hiring does play an important part in the facilitation of achieving gender balance, most organisations focus way too heavily on this top-of-funnel approach and, in doing so, neglect the critical components that follow, post recruitment. Achieving gender balance in technology teams means enabling women to progress in the industry and have their voices heard. Currently, comprise 47.2% of the workforce and yet “women only hold 14.6% of chair positions, 8.1% of directorships and 18.3% of CEO’s” according to the WGEA. This represents flawed workforce structures that must be corrected before progress can be achieved.
A key way of facilitating this correction is through establishing mentorship and sponsorship programs for women. Research has proven that such programs are critical success factors for women in technology. There are clear differences between sponsor and mentor roles and evidence shows that the combination of both programs will result in a positive impact on the gender diversity of an organisation.
It’s well understood that women are a minority in technology (and STEM more broadly), in fact, women make up just 27.8% of the IT workforce. The issues this causes women in performing their day-to-day work and in their ability to achieve career longevity are known to lead to an unacceptable number of women abandoning tech mid-career. Being a woman in a male-dominated tech environment can be incredibly daunting and challenging to navigate. We believe that one of the most important factors that support women to not only survive but to thrive and stay in this sector is to establish meaningful and relatable connections, allowing them to feel more secure, supported and achieve a sense of belonging. The latter not being exactly easy when you consider the common “frat-house” environment we see so frequently in tech departments – think Nerf guns, arcade games and craft beer-filled fridges.
Two of the most effective ways to achieve the support described above are through the provision of both mentors and sponsors. Whilst these roles may be thought of as similar, they are in fact entirely different.
So, how does a Sponsor differ from a Mentor?
The role of a career sponsor is to build support for an employee who has been recognised within their organisation to have significant potential by working with them to accelerate their career advancement.
This role is generally associated with the possibility of promotion. The structure of most environments makes it very difficult for women to have their work recognised, meaning that promotions are far too rare. This is reflected in the low percentages of women in high-ranking positions.
Since 2015, we’ve seen minimal increases in the representation of women in high-ranking positions. In 2020, the percentage of women senior managers/directors has only increased from 32% in 2015 to 33% according to McKinsey & Company. This pretty dismal increase demonstrates the importance of implementing sponsor relationships for women in the technology sector, where women in leadership are especially rare.
Research shows that a woman with a career sponsor in her company is many times more likely to take risks and be creative knowing that someone in leadership has their back and is advocating for them at senior level when they’re not there. Fact!
Put simply, the global issue of low representation of women on boards and in leadership, in general, will be positively impacted if women are provided with career sponsors.
One clear difference between a mentor and a sponsor is that a mentor doesn’t need to be in the same company as the mentee. A mentor provides guidance to help navigate various challenges in their mentee’s career and achieve goals, giving advice that helps bring out the best of a person’s abilities.
When given advice, support and encouragement like this, women have greater perspective and more confidence to strive towards their goals. Women in the tech sector see the role of a mentor as an incredibly important one and as they are usually a minority (often the only women in a team or department), having someone “relatable” as a mentor can seem almost impossible.
A global study by talent management specialist DDI Inc found that 67% of women agreed having a mentor is key to their development and success. However, very few women in tech are currently provided with mentors, as is evidenced by this research which found that 63% of women have not had access to mentorship throughout their career.
To create a diverse and successful environment, companies need to heed this and increase the opportunities for women to have mentors. Women are often left to ask for a mentor if they want one but generally are not aware if these are available, so it makes sense that more companies create a more formal mentorship program, and communicate it widely.
A common and somewhat unhelpful phenomenon in tech environments is the forming of “in and out groups”. They generally come from group social activities like drinks at the pub, organised sports, game playing etc. Employees involved in these activities develop cross-team and cross-level relationships which often lead to “informal” mentorships and even sponsorships where individuals can score themselves an advantage which can lead them to promotions or project opportunities. The people who are outside these groups are those who perhaps don’t drink so don’t go along to the drinks, or aren’t sporty, don’t play pool, don’t like video games, or have family responsibilities that prevent them from attending (you get the picture).
The purpose of increasing mentors and sponsors for women, in particular, is to counteract these unintentional and dated inner workings of tech companies, giving women the same opportunities as their male counterparts, and creating a fairer and more equitable playing field.
To demonstrate this phenomenon, I often use the example of that episode of “Friends” where Rachel smokes, remember that one? She lands her dream job at Ralph Loren and loves her team but they frequently go for cigarette breaks together and as she doesn’t smoke Rachel stays inside. She soon starts hearing about projects, activities and invites she’s completely missed out on because she wasn’t at the smoke breaks where they were talked about. Soooooo she takes up smoking, just so she can access this other world of opportunity in the “smokers group”.
Even though there’s been some good progress made towards workplace gender equality, there’s still a very long way to go. We absolutely must bring focus and resources to providing women with real opportunities to develop and advance to senior and leadership levels.
Implementing formally organised mentoring and sponsorship programs can be a slam-dunk game-changer for women in technology and you know the old adage, “you can’t be what you can’t see”? Giving the next generation of young women line of sight of rafts of women at leadership levels in the field of technology is without doubt the outcome we should all be striving for.
Emma Jones is the Founder and CEO of Project F,
helping progressive companies achieve gender-balanced technology teams and leadership.