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Ekaterina Walter Headshot

The Role of Mentorship for Women in Technology

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We all know the grim facts about female leadership. Women make up half of the U.S. workforce but represent only 25 percent of the technology industry; they lead only eight percent of technology start-ups. Women fill less than 15 percent of executive officer positions at Fortune 500 companies and make up just 3.4 percent of CEOs.

And all the while there are convincing reports of women being better leaders than men. For example, In their latest Harvard Business Review blog post Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman presented their study that shows that women outscore men not only in taking initiative and driving for results -- traits that have long been thought of as particularly male strengths -- but also in developing and motivating others, building relationships, collaboration and problem-solving (among others).

So why aren't there more female leaders among us? This is the question that is particularly relevant for male-dominated industries like technology, but applicable everywhere else. I believe that one of the answers lie in the lack of mentorship, in the lack of both mentors and mentees.

If you look at the entrepreneurship landscape, you still see that it is dominated by men. But without women in high places, younger women lack the role models and mentors to help them succeed. Younger generations of women need to have someone to look up to, someone to show them the ropes and limitless possibilities, to help them believe. That is why it is increasingly crucial that women who have made it to the top of the organization commit to guiding other women towards similar success, take a larger role and responsibility in 'raising' the next generation of female leaders. Unfortunately, most of the time the environment and culture within organizations are still very much biased and women in power have to spend a lot of their energy trying to compete with their male counterparts, working extra hard to prove their value to the organization, leaving no time for important task of mentorship.

I also believe that it is also our responsibility to ask for mentorship. We just automatically assume that we will not get it. Women need to actively seek mentorship, male or female. A lot of times us, women, don't give enough credit to our male counterparts to guide us in the right direction. But more often than not women in power cite their male mentors being crucial to their success.

Mentorship is the topic that the five of us explored at the panel at South by Southwest this year. The panel was moderated by Cat Posey and included Nilofer Merchant, Leslie Bradshaw, Margot Bloomstein and yours truly. Today I wanted to share some of the advice participants offered to the audience with you.

We all agreed that a mentor is someone who:
• Has faith in you, pushes you to be better, encourages you to keep moving forward when going gets tough
• Is honest with you, even if truth hurts, and tells you to stop whining if necessary ("tough love")
• Contributes to your knowledge base through sharing experiences and best-known practices
• Opens up his/her rolodex to you and utilizes his/her network to help you succeed
• Helps you towards your own vision by helping align your actions with your goals
• Is consistent and disciplined: puts in the time, gives you homework, sets benchmarks, holds you accountable every step of the way

Here are some additional tips from panelists:
• Mentoring doesn't have to be an altruistic act; it is totally acceptable to have a mutual benefit in this relationship that would help motivate both parties. You can trade your services or help each other in different ways, but it is always best to ensure alignment of incentives.
• Mentees have to know what they want -- that's half the battle.
• It is impossible to meet with everyone who wants your time as a mentor. If you are in that position, create a barrier to entry to ensure your mentees are as dedicated as they expect you to be. Nilofer, for example, asks those seeking her advice to meet her on her terms and to go for a long hike with her which will give the opportunity to have a one-on-one discussion.
• Don't make gender an issue, don't take it personally. People hang out in familiar circles because of the common interests, that's just how networks work. Men, for example, usually play basketball or golf with other men, so they naturally form a network of other men around them. As a woman, you need to become a part of solution, not a part of the problem.
• Ageism is often an issue professionally. So if you are a young woman, you can overcome it by sounding confident, being firm, looking others straight in the eye, and firmly shaking hands.
• As a mentor you have to make a commitment and stick to it no matter what. Your role as a mentor is to push yourself out of the job by your mentee doing it well.

What was our advice to women in the audience?

"You get to define your power," said Nilofer Merchant. "No one will define it for you." And she is right. You are the only one who stands in your way. So I say follow your dreams, don't take no for an answer, reach out to people and establish connections, look for mentors relentlessly and don't let anyone discourage you. Do not let fear stop you; it is okay to fail your way to amazing things! Speak out, take credit for the work you've done and negotiate the heck out of that raise, because guess what -- you deserve it. So own it!

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