Why do so few women make it to the top of the technology ladder? A lot of people say it’s due to a shortage of female tech talent, but there’s a lot more to it than that.

It’s widely acknowledged that women make the tech world better, but numbers indicate that there is a lot of work to do. The demand for technical roles is rising exponentially and is expected to reach 1.4 million in 2020, yet the U.S. Census Bureau has found that women receive only 18% of undergraduate degrees awarded for computer science. What’s surprising about this figure is that it doesn’t represent progress. In 1985, women earned 37% of computer-science undergraduate degrees.

Althoguh there are more and more groups out there that are trying to attract females into the tech industry, from girls-only coding classes to 'women in tech' networking groups, retaining women in the industry may actually be the bigger problem.

One of the difficulties with keeping women in technology is that there are few female mentors for them to look up to. On the Forbes Midas list of 100 leading tech investors, only 5 are women. In the Silicon Valley, only 11% of executives are women. Only 53% of big tech companies in the US have a woman on their executive management team, compared with 84% for the large firms in other industries. The earnings gap between men and women is worse in the tech industry, too, where men earn up to 61% more than women, compared to around 48% for the US as a whole. Without women to look to at the top, many women in technology get discouraged and leave the workforce.

Why do you need a mentor?

According to a 2014 survey from Mortimer Spinks and Computer Weekly, roughly half (53%) of the technology industry has had a mentor at some point during their career. Most have had mentors in the early stages of their careers, but the data shows spikes of mentoring at levels that could be considered as ‘career milestones’ – at ‘Manager’ or ‘Director or above’ levels there is a significant increase.

The truly stand-out stat is that almost everyone (96%) who has had a mentor believes it improved their career prospects and will benefit anyone who has one.

Mentors can bring a wealth of benefits to your career prospects. When you’re thinking about you’re next career move they can connect you with relevant people in their network (which can be particularly helpful if you're returning from a career break). Mentors can provide first-hand practical advice on critical career or business-decisions, allowing you to learn from their personal successes and mistakes. They are people you can bounce ideas off of in confidence. They can point out your strengths and talents and boost your self-confidence. Finally, mentors can be powerfully motivational as they often act as visual representation of where you want to be in the future.

However, as Sheryl Sandberg reminds us in Lean In, “You Can’t Ask Anyone To Be Your Mentor” and they aren't your magic ticket to the top. You have to establish a two-way relationship with them.

sheryl sandberg lean in quote

While it's flattering to be asked to be somebody's mentor, a person will only do it if there is something in it for them too. By asking them to be your mentor, you’re asking them to give up some of their personal time – which could be spent with family or friends – to be with you. Time is one of the most precious commodities to people these days, so you have to be sure you’re asking the right person and you’re ready to prove to them why they should be your mentor.

So how can you get a mentor? Here are our top tips: 

Think about what you want from a mentor.

There’s no point in having a mentor if you don’t know how you’d like them to help you achieve your career goals. Do you need someone with expertise, a strong network in a particular field, or someone to bounce ideas with? Is there a particular dilemma you’d like to talk through? Analysing what you want from them will help you get a mentor in the first place and will increase your chances of making it a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship.

Look at your network.

The most obvious way to find a mentor is through your network – both through work relationships and social media. There are no limits to where you can look. If you find someone on Twitter, why not ask them for a coffee?

Go to networking events and mentorship schemes.

There are tons of brilliant meetups, networking events and mentorship schemes where you will find others who are also seeking out mentors.

Don’t ask: “Will you be my mentor?”

This is way too vague, and suggests you see a mentor as the ‘Prince Charming’ figure Sheryl Sandberg describes above. Instead, tell them why you admire them and that you were hoping they could help you with a specific career ambition or problem. Hopefully, they’ll be happy to meet you for a coffee so you can get to know each other better, see if you have good rapport, and know whether you’d like to build a relationship together.

Be open with each other about what you want from the relationship.

The mentor/mentee relationship often starts in the grey area, so it’s up to both of you to decide what you want from it and how often you’ll meet. Be upfront about your personal goals and how you want them to help you get there.

Do ask: "How can I help you?"

As I said before, a mentor needs to feel like the relationship will be mutually-beneficial to get into it in the first place. Sure they'll find it rewarding to help someone develop their skills and achieve their career goals, but there might be a few surprising ways you can help them, too. 

Make sure there is good chemistry.

If you’re not comfortable talking with this person, find someone else. It’s likely they’ll feel the fit isn’t right, too, and the crucial element in a mentor/mentee relationship is the ability to speak openly with each other.

Maintain the relationship.

It sounds obvious, but you should keep in touch with each other over the period between your meetings. A friendly email to check in or thank each other for their advice will make the relationship warmer as both sides will feel appreciated. When you do meet up, try and stick to the structure you’d agreed to originally and think about what you’d like to cover before the meeting. What specific issues are you facing right now? Where could you do with some practical advice?

Know when it’s ended.

Not all relationships last forever, and most mentorship relationships come to a natural end. This is normal and healthy; not because one has let the other down.

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Our #TechCityWomen event series was set up to open up the conversation about women in technology issues and help people develop mentorship relationships naturally. If you're interested in attending our next event, send Izzy a quick email now so you're one of the first to know about upcoming events!