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Who's Mentoring the Mentors?

Focus on getting women into technology is good and focusing on keeping women in technology is even better.

Every few years the industry, as if waking from a fugue, notices that the number of women in technical fields is lower than the number of men. A mad rush of studies and subsequent articles analyzing the situation is almost universally followed by a call to arms: we need to do better at mentoring girls and young women to get them interested in technology. And yet the fact that we rush to this conclusion every few years points to a failure in this strategy. After all, if a focus on earlier education was addressing the issue, we wouldn’t need to re-focus on education and encouragement every few years.

The latest calls for mentoring the next-generation have come in just the past two months, lead by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her initiative, TechWomen.

“Being a woman in the field of technology is not always easy,” Clinton said at the State Department during a July 6 gathering for the TechWomen initiative. “But there are so many opportunities in technology that we just have to forge ahead, and we’re doing so around the world because we want to make sure that all the tools that technology has made available are just as open to women as they are to men.”

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While Clinton is certainly amongst the more high-profile women to speak out on the subject, she is not alone. Bloomberg also recently picked up on the disparity, noting efforts by the well-respected UC Berkley to increase its efforts to improve the ratio:

While women hold about half the jobs in the broader U.S. economy, they account for less than 25 percent of science, technology, engineering and math positions, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Companies need to make sure female mentors are accessible to younger employees, she said. That allows women to more easily see themselves in top positions, Dai said.

Just 12 percent of the students majoring in electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, are women, said Claire Tomlin, a professor who oversees those majors at the school.

The college is working with middle-school girls to spark interest in engineering at a young age, and it invites females from other schools to the campus for summer programs to cultivate more interest in the field, she said.

And yet these numbers are hardly troubling when compared to a much more disturbing set of statistics, that of the rate at which drop out of the field mid-career. A 2008 study found that nearly 52% of women simply drop out in the 30s and 40s, most often citing overly hostile environments and extreme work pressure as their reason. (ComputerWorld, Why Women Quit Technology)

It is this statistic that speaks to a troubling trend, and which is rarely addressed by those concerned with the overall state of women in technology. Too often the call to arms focuses on young women, on girls, and more recently on the widening gap globally. Secretary of State Clinton’s initiative, TechWomen, for example, specifically focuses on mentoring of women and girls from a global point of view, requiring that mentors not only focus on technical issues, but cultural. Too, its restriction on location (all mentors must be in the greater Silicon Valley area) seem to contradict the power of technology to connect women across locations and, in a global environment, time. A veritable cornucopia of other initiatives also exist to encourage young girls to enter into the fields, including the somewhat controversial introduction of an “engineer Barbie” just over a year ago.

What you rarely see, despite the growing importance of networking in general to career development, are initiatives focused on women already in technology. Mentors for the mentors.

Cloud Network of Women

While not the impetus for the foundation of Cloud Network of Women (CloudNOW), the benefits of promoting successful women in technology who have survived the self-imposed culling of the female population in technology to potentially curbing the exodus should not be overlooked. CloudNOW fills an overlooked need of mentors for the mentors that addresses the gap in existing “women in technology” strategies. By addressing the gap with a real foundation for women already in technology it is hoped that we can break the cycle.

It also serves as a reminder that despite all the negative statistics and dire predictions of women becoming irrelevant in technology, many women have highly successful careers in technology and are more often than not found amongst the upper-echelons of the technology industry. Members of CloudNOW are heavyweight hitters in the emerging cloud computing market, comprising women executives from some of the most recognizable and successful technology companies in the business including IBM, VMware, Oracle, EMC, and Many are entrepreneurs, others are high-level executives, still others are analysts and thought leaders within cloud computing – a technology focus-area which many would agree remains the “next big thing” – ignoring, of course, any new i-Named product coming from Apple.

CloudNOW was founded by Jocelyn DeGance Graham primarily because of a lack of any similar initiative. There are no groups that focus primarily on technology and promoting its women leaders. “There are many organizations today promoting women and technology, but too often those organizations focus more on social issues like work-life balance and less on the contributions of women in technology. We want to promote the extraordinary contributions of women to cloud computing and provide a mentoring environment that encourages more women to contribute. Promoting and building a platform to recognize women’s accomplishments within technology is a positive way to encourage women of all ages to not only enter technical fields but to stay in them,” Jocelyn explains. “These are real women with real and significant contributions, not just examples of career paths that might be taken once you have a degree in a technology field.”

The ability to explore technology and its myriad real career paths as well as the opportunity to work with and learn from some of the industry’s leading women like CloudNOW board member Lauren States (VP IBM) is invaluable in its ability to encourage women to remain in technology, especially as they gain insight into the diverse roles in which women are employed in technology. It offers a chance to promote, seriously, the contributions of women to and in technology and provides a path for other women to do the same at a time in their career’s when they are generally overlooked.

The media and industry is already taking notice. Cloud Expo and Cloud Connect have scheduled CloudNOW moderated sessions, a tech first in which an all female panel takes center stage to discuss and debate the most relevant topics and challenges in cloud computing today. "This is our differentiator and why CloudNOW is working', says Jocelyn. 'We are not separating women in tech into our own conversation, but forming a collective. Together we are the voice of authority for women in cloud moving the technology conversation forward in partnership with the industry."

The initiatives that encourage young women to get into technology are important. But so, too, is continuing to support and encourage women already in their careers to stay and become active in technology. CloudNOW, like all women-focused technology initiatives, promotes women in technology by creating the opportunities to contribute to the conversation, to network with active members of the greater IT community to become the voice of authority for women in cloud computing and, the organization hopes, technology in general. Unlike other initiatives, however, CloudNOW seeks a more collaborative, community-focused approach that encourages participation and not segregation of women from the technology community in which they are grounded. Technology is, as we’ve seen, heavily dominated by the male side of the gender spectrum, so that means not only including men, but encouraging them to participate in and contribute to the conversation as well. Bernard Golden, acknowledged cloud guru, brings his expertise in cloud computing to CloudNOW as a member of the advisory board, lending his expert perspective on the technology and acting as a guide to help nascent thought leading women navigate the myriad avenues to bring their thought-leading ideas on cloud computing to the market. Whether male or female, this kind of guidance and encouragement – mentoring - is necessary to promote the technical contributions of women and encourage both those in and considering a career in technology-related fields.

By promoting the contributions of women and providing a platform for them to share their technical and thought-leadership across the technology market, CloudNOW hopes to encourage others to do the same and avoid becoming just another statistic.

[1], Work all your networks

More Stories By Lori MacVittie

Lori MacVittie is responsible for education and evangelism of application services available across F5’s entire product suite. Her role includes authorship of technical materials and participation in a number of community-based forums and industry standards organizations, among other efforts. MacVittie has extensive programming experience as an application architect, as well as network and systems development and administration expertise. Prior to joining F5, MacVittie was an award-winning Senior Technology Editor at Network Computing Magazine, where she conducted product research and evaluation focused on integration with application and network architectures, and authored articles on a variety of topics aimed at IT professionals. Her most recent area of focus included SOA-related products and architectures. She holds a B.S. in Information and Computing Science from the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay, and an M.S. in Computer Science from Nova Southeastern University.

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