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Mentorship gets women into tech, but sponsorship keeps them there

Women remain underrepresented in the tech industry – it is as simple as that. According to the recent Women in STEM Decadal Plan, Australian women make up 50.7  per cent of the population, but only 16  per cent of Australia’s STEM-skilled workforce.

Despite international conversations regarding the lack of women in STEM and big tech conglomerates leading by example with diversity and inclusion initiatives, the results do not match the efforts. Why is that?

I believe that not enough women consider STEM as a career pathway because they may feel excluded from the tech world, possibly not having had exposure to computers as young children. I had the opportunity to experience the benefits of being involved in an industry that creates practical, functional and creative opportunities in an exciting, fast-paced environment. At age nine, I was exposed to tech in a hands-on way – from learning how to solder upgraded RAM to a motherboard with my father because my Compaq computer was “too slow”, through to designing e-brochures for my pretend store – all for fun. 

Without such early foundations in place, it is our responsibility as technology companies to generate excitement about the industry and amplify that in everything we do. We can inspire and guide young females through mentorship, but to truly articulate our message and more importantly, action it, we need to consider sponsorship. 

Why sponsorship is vital

The reason sponsorship is so critical is because it can create a measurable difference on career development and advancement. Sponsorship is the missing accountability piece to mentorship. A mentor is someone who gives advice and guidance, whereas a sponsor actively helps women achieve their goals. Ideally you want a combination of both.

According to Brenda Darden Wilkerson, CEO and President of AnitaB.org, sponsorship is a ‘measurable dynamic between an advocate in the workplace who is an established leader and an employee who is seeking support, career guidance and an overall experience that will transform her career.’

In my first few weeks after changing to a technology specialist role at BlackBerry, I was tasked with running a new business deal in New Zealand. I reached out to a female senior leader for support. Rather than push me to my regional leader for guidance, she made it her responsibility to ensure we were on the right track and worked with me through the night preparing for the deal, which we ultimately won. Following the win, she helped coordinate all the resources to execute the deal and once the deal was complete, she praised my work internally among the senior leadership team. This is a prime example of a sponsor who focused on achieving outcomes, supported me every step of the way and gave me a voice and a platform to share my success afterwards. 

In my opinion, this also demonstrates why sponsorship needs to be public. It requires a well-established woman or male to not only advocate for other women, but advance women on their teams publicly through the power of their networks. While you might have a meaningful and helpful one-to-one conversation in private with a mentor, it does not always lead to something actionable. Whereas a sponsor will be your advocate to the entire organisation and will put you forward for all opportunities – both inside and outside the workplace.

I have also had managers who have pushed me to amplify my work by taking on speaking opportunities or panel moderation duties. Both men and women leaders have a responsibility to provide opportunities to extend the skillsets of their team. A good mentor or sponsor solely focuses on producing the best quality work, recognising the potential of the employee and skills both utilised and required to make them successful, regardless of their gender.

Sponsorship can be encouraged and organised through formal programs. Business leaders who have participated in sponsoring relationships have reported feeling an increase in job satisfaction and a greater sense of commitment to their organisation. I challenge business leaders to seek help from and partner with diversity organisations to establish these programs with the workforce.

The more we publically sponsor women, the better we will be able to ensure female career advancement. We can also build a platform to inspire other women to choose STEM as their path for success, creating the cycle that is required achieve gender balance in the workforce.  


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