Listen to this article
The technology industry does not just have a problem recruiting women — it also struggles to retain them. It is called the trapdoor, the mid-career point at which many female technologists seem to disappear.
After about 12 years at work, around half of women leave their jobs in Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields — particularly in computing and engineering, according to a study cited by the US National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT).
“Once gone, we know that they don’t tend to come back,” says Melissa Di Donato, chief revenue officer in the cloud enterprise resource planning business at the software company SAP.
Family reasons are not the primary reason for their departure, the report found. Women in another study identified isolation, feeling stalled in their careers and lack of mentorship.
Mentoring, therefore, could be part of the answer to greater gender equality in the sector.
“You can’t be what you can’t see” is a phrase that comes up in discussions about diversity in the workplace. Female role models can be influential, but even more powerful is the experience of working one to one with a mentor who offers personalised advice, support and encouragement, often face to face, says Ms Di Donato.
“From personal experience, it can be incredibly valuable when you’re navigating difficult issues or making tough decisions. There are times when it’s very easy to feel isolated,” she says.
An extra push, mid-career, may be another benefit of mentoring, according to Carrie Varoquiers, vice-president of global impact at the software company Workday. Last year, she launched a mentoring programme at the company that was specifically aimed at mid-level female employees. Several hundred signed up.
Small groups of between three and six participants are matched with a more senior female mentor in the company for monthly group discussions on career development. The hope is that the people being mentored go on to follow their mentor up the corporate ladder rather than dropping out a decade or so into their careers.
“I find it quite shocking to look around and see how many of the women that I started out with have left technology,” says Sue Black, founder of the BCSWomen online network for women in technology, and honorary professor in the department of computer science at University College London.
“When you’re in your twenties and early thirties, you can keep going under your own steam, but it’s a few years later that you get tired of struggling to be heard or of seeing younger men promoted over you. It’s then that the extra boost that a good mentor can give you might well keep you on track and stop you looking around for easier options.”
Ms Black is a prolific mentor. She estimates that she has worked with 100 women over the years. She also keeps in contact with her own mentor of more than two decades, Dame Wendy Hall, professor of computer science at the University of Southampton.
“As a PhD student in the 1990s, I attended a talk Wendy gave and asked her if she’d consider being my mentor. She said she would love to, but didn’t have the time, so I asked if she could spare me just one hour a year. So that’s what we did, and two decades on, we’re good friends, but I still consider her my mentor, too,” says Ms Black. Mentoring has helped her through periods of uncertainty, she says. “It has got me over hurdles in the toughest of times.”
Mentorship can be Ms Black’s kind of informal, private arrangement between two people, but a formal programme, overseen by an employer, can be more inclusive, says Karen Mazer, a principal at management consultancy Deloitte and a co-lead of its US chief information officer programme.
“From my experience, the value of a formal programme is that nobody gets left out,” she says.
“There are certain people who really thrive with a bit of attention, focus and encouragement — and they’re not always the people who would be comfortable asking for mentoring.”
The onus should not rest solely on the employer or, indeed, the mentor themselves, says Meagen Eisenberg, chief marketing officer at database software company MongoDB. “The best women to mentor are those who can define what they hope to get from the relationship, the kind of advice and feedback they need, even the basics of how frequently to meet and how long for.”
The online travel agency Booking.com is trying to combine the two — the request for a mentoring programme came from a group of female employees, who were also involved in its design, but it will be overseen by the company’s human resources department.
“They felt they could use the support and help with matching mentors to mentees, as well as the endorsement of human resources and the chief executive officer, and we were more than happy to help with this,” says Yvonne Agyei, the chief people officer.
“It’s a pilot in our Amsterdam headquarters for now, but all being well, we hope to roll it out much more widely.”