In our earlier blog ‘Pay It Forward: Female Tech Mentors Needed’ we discussed that there are many barriers women have to face to enter into the male dominated ICT environment. It is even harder and more daunting for a female entrepreneur striving to get her share of the market. What is holding us back as women? From our conversations with women in tech, we’ve realised that one of the most persisting barriers in the ICT industry for women is the lack of access to influential networks and mentors.
Simply put we don’t have a “Girl’s club”.
It is a well-known fact that the ICT industry is still rife with gender inequality. However, more and more companies are increasingly becoming aware of the benefits of gender diversity for innovation. In this male dominated world we as GirlCode believe that women need to work together to nurture the next generation of female tech entrepreneurs and developer workforce.
Contrary to popular belief, we have found that there are more than a fair share of women in powerful positions who are ready and willing to be mentors. This leads us to believe that the problem is access to these influential women, so the question is:
- How do you find these influential women?
- How do you approach someone?
- and once they agree to be your mentor, what do you do?
To gain some clarity on these questions we have asked our mentor Charmaine Houvet: Public Policy Director Africa at Cisco Systems to weigh in on this discussion and give us some insights on the importance of female mentorship and how she plans to tackle this issue through her own initiative ‘Afriel’
Q. Charmaine, please tell us more about yourself and how you got into the ICT industry?
My entry into the ICT industry was not a calculated or informed one but a decision necessitated by seeking urgent employment upon completing high school to further my studies since my family was unable to pay for University. I have been working in the ICT sector for 25 years, having worked extremely hard and have held positions in exciting and transformative roles in various companies. Pursuing a career in the ICT sector was not promoted in the 80’s as it is today, ICT is being promoted as sexy, and nerds are the new jocks! Cybersecurity, network engineering, mobile engineers, business analysts, web and product developers are in high demand. Looking back I am convinced that I made the right career choice. I love working in the ICT sector, it has been a tough journey but I have zero regrets. Working in this sector has also enabled me to support and bring awareness to young females wanting to work in the sector.
Q. “Behind every successful woman, is a tribe of other successful women” – Do you have a mentor or mentors and why do you think its important for women to have a mentor?
A Mckinsey study on Gender Parity indicates that women are overrepresented in informal, temporary, and low-productivity jobs with low pay and limited opportunities for advancement.We therefore should not exclude males from the mentorship equation, in my 25 years in the ICT sector I have been fortunate to come across many male leaders who are passionate about female development. I have mentors that address various aspects of my life and some of these mentors are males. I have a male colleague mentor Tunji Akintokun who I recently connected with based in the UK. Tunji is passionate about diversity in the workplace and sits on the women’s council of techUK which represents over 900 companies globally and he inspires women to pursue careers in STEM. Everyone needs a mentor, for me, mentorship is not gender specific, identify a mentor that you connect with and who has the knowledge, networks and time to help you grow. That being said I am blessed with the most powerful women in my life who hold global positions, these are women in various sectors who have influenced and supported me throughout my career for over 20 years. These women have become my sisters over time, we eat, work, and pray together. Mckinsey states that The Global Gender Gap Report 2014, by the World Economic Forum, concludes that it will take another 81 years for the world to close the economic gender gap and realise the resulting growth benefits. But there are actions that can be taken now to accelerate the pace of progress. We are raising men so we should drive awareness and education about gender equality amongst our male and female children early in life so that gender divides hopefully will disappear with future generations.
Q. In your experience, where does the problem lie when it comes to connecting and networking as women
I love the Mckinsey Women Matter Research published in 2005 which indicates that “women have a tendency to network less effectively than men” and that “women are reluctant to promote themselves”. When speaking to women various factors are indicated that result in this with a key contributing factor being mentioned by Mckinsey as the “Double burden” syndrome (women balancing work and domestic responsibilities). Another key factor is the absence of strong female role models that women can connect to and with. Mentoring and coaching can and will assist women to connect and network more easily.
Even though there is a large emphasis on the mentor being the one responsible for helping the mentee, we have to take into account that mentors are very busy and it should not just lie on them to make sure the relationship is kept. It is a mutually beneficial relationship, therefore the onus is on both parties to make it work.
Q. What is your advice for mentees? What do you believe they should do to get the most out of their mentor?
Firstly introspect and then seek honest feed-back from peers, friends, leaders and family around the areas that you require support and guidance on, then select a mentor that you connect with and trust to embark upon the growth and development journey with you. Subscribe to free leadership journals, read, read and read some more , set up knowledge sharing sessions with friends and peers , knowledge is indeed power when shared . Respect your mentorship schedule, arrive prepared and on time for your sessions. Should the mentorship journey work for you and you find that you have achieved the objectives and goals remember to pay it forward and pull others upwards and forward.
There is already such a big gender gap when it comes to women in leadership positions, it is therefore a logical step for these women to bring more young women to the fold. The quote “I am the only woman in top management…” is a very common quote in the ICT industry. It’s actually a very common quote in the STEM field but most woman wear this as badge of honor instead of recognising it for what it is and that’s the marginalisation of other women. We understand, appreciate and commend the woman who have broken the mold and are part of the few in the industry but we believe we need to empower each other.
Q. How do we as women move from being competitive with each other to being more collaborative and lift each other up?
This sounds cliché but true collaboration can only be achieved when an individual is confident about who they are and what they bring to a relationship. I read an interesting article by Amy Simpson that states that “historically, women have perceived that a small amount of power and opportunity are available to us-and that these resources are controlled and granted to us by others. So when some small door of opportunity cracks open, we greedily shove one another out of our way in an effort to be the first-or better yet, only woman through the gap”. Ms Simpson goes on to explain that we resent one another for successes, believing other women’s achievement inherently erodes our own. The challenge in this thinking however results in us alienating each other and causing men to be the dominant power and force in the workplace, the very issue we complain about is driven by our own insecurities and negative behavior. There is no need or desire to pull anyone down when your happiness comes from within and you are doing what you are good at and enjoy it, we must stand in solidarity and promote each other, stop competing, the pie is big enough for all of us to get a fair slice.
Q. Tell us about ‘Afriel’ and how you see it addressing this problem?
The name Afriel inspired and resonated my vision for female leaders as it is defined as “a being of light that safeguards young life, and is also considered to be protective of that which is youthful and tenderly growing within each of us, no matter how old we actually are” The name is defined as bold and innovative youth encouraging newness and exploration, offering guidance to those who dare new thoughts which is exactly what is required in workplace and from our youth.
Afriel’s strength lies in bringing awareness to teenage girls and women who have just entered the workplace about their strengths and assisting them identify and embrace their individual passion and then connecting them with ambassadors who have walked a journey similar to what they are embarking upon to nurture and grow that seed within them. Afriel will encourage women to collaborate and to be comfortable in their individual boldness and uniqueness and provide access to suitable role models to enable them to achieve this. This is of course not a silver bullet but is one of the many ways in which we can start to solving this issue one building block at a time. The strength of course behind closing the gender gap is for women to start getting along with each other and empowering themselves through learning and development.