By Jennifer Altman, VP-IT for Corporate Functions and Cyber Security, IT Site Head, Basel/Kaiseraugst, Switzerland, F. Hoffmann-La Roche Ltd.
When I entered the workforce 30 years ago, very few women were in technology compared to today, and even today, only 26% of the IT workforce is female. When you consider that 65% of the healthcare industry is female, we clearly have a long way to go.
If everyone recognizes the economic benefits of diversity, we would do more. One McKinsey & Company study published in 2019 found that companies with executive teams that ranked in the top quartile of gender diversity were 25% more likely to achieve above-average profitability over the previous five years and those with executive teams in the top quartile for ethnic and cultural diversity were 36% more likely to achieve above-average profitability.
But overcoming bias takes work – whether you are on the giving or the receiving end.
Nobody intends to be biased. We all have good intentions. But it is only through education and awareness that we can uncover the blind spots that influence the way we think and act.
Change the words
To cite just one example, there was a time when we needed to hire a person for a role in IT where our job description emphasized the skillset we wanted to see – the description talked about architecture, infrastructure, platforms, and data.
It was a complete description in its own way, but it didn’t attract enough diversity in the pool of candidates who applied to the position: all the applicants were male.
Perhaps, something in the job description had inadvertently discouraged women from applying. So, we edited the job description by coupling the technical language with appreciation for creativity, a mindset of possibility and ability to look holistically at problems.
It worked: when we reposted the role, we attracted a much more diverse set of candidates who were motivated by our interest in a balance of skills, capabilities, approach and mindset.
Change the relationship
Other unconscious biases need to be addressed more directly. Mentorships, for example, can help leaders get to know employees of all backgrounds, and help support employees with insights they need to succeed within an organization.
I believe that a mentorship relationship benefits both the mentor and mentee. It helps both to grow and learn in careers and in general. As a mentor, I gain learnings through the experience shared by the mentee. Finding ways that I can help the mentee challenges me to broaden my views and horizons.
Of course, I never say no to anybody who asks me to mentor them. What I do ask is, can you tell me what you’re looking for? Tell me what it is that I can do to help you so that we make best use of our time.
To find a mentor, start by talking to your colleagues. Let people know that you are looking for a mentor. Be very specific about what you would like to gain from that experience. For example, if you are looking for career advice, say that’s what you’re looking for. On the other hand, if you are looking for people who can share experiences in their careers that can help inspire you, then say that.
In my personal experience, when selecting a mentor, gender match is not necessarily a critical factor. However, I do find that such a match could enhance the understandings and context of discussions. In this world where gender disparity in the workplace is real, I believe female leaders have a duty to help inspire, motivate and help other women grow in their careers.
You should also look for more than one mentor. Over the years in my career, I have always been keen to find a set of mentors, not just one. Make sure that all those people not only support you in your learning but raise your self-confidence.
There are coaching and sponsorship relationships that are related but different from that of mentorship. A coach would spend time to help someone find her career path. A sponsor would take an active role in advancing a person’s career. These types of relationships can be explored in conjunction with mentorships.
Establish a relationship
The first and most critical factor in a mentorship relationship is trust. A personal connection helps to establish that trust between the mentor and the mentee. Once that trust is in place, then you can talk about anything and everything, for as long as it’s helpful. It’s a journey, not a one-time thing or a one-day thing. It’s a relationship that can last for a long time – maybe even a lifetime.
The frequency of mentoring meetings should depend on the mentee’s needs. If you are focusing on a very targeted topic, a regular, recurrent regimen is helpful. But there are other types of mentorships that don’t have to be structured, where people may say, “Look, I admire you,” or “I like the way you approach certain things, can we talk once in a while?”
The two of you don’t need to schedule a regular meeting in a particular place. You could meet over coffee. You could meet in a park. You could meet anywhere, physically or virtually. In the end, the approach should be adjusted to meet the needs of the person who’s looking for the mentorship.
Finally, remember it’s up to you to remove the greatest obstacle to your career growth, which is yourself. Recognize that our gender plays a part in our tendencies and choices, influenced by cultures and experiences.
If you want to succeed in your career, whether in technology or elsewhere, go after things you’re excited about. Be confident in yourself. Don't stick only to things you are already comfortable with,; instead, stretch outside your comfort zone. Focus on what you don’t know and what you can learn. Focus on your strengths. Focus on what your contribution could be. Focus on the opportunities.
Actively speak about biases you have faced yourself to help educate everyone how bias influences the way we think and act.
Look for different mentors for different needs, not just a single mentor, to guide you in your career.
Don’t take yourself out of the running for a position by focusing too much on a narrow interpretation of the requirements.