Home > Uncategorized > Anonymous Guest Post: Mentorship Problems for Women in Tech

Anonymous Guest Post: Mentorship Problems for Women in Tech

This is an anonymous guest post.

Mentorship is important in any field. In the tech industry, it is essential. In tech, one’s network is key for learning about the existence of smaller startups, where the financial upside is often higher than at big companies due to stock grants. For a culture that emphasizes meritocracy so heavily, tech is much more of a who-is-who than I ever realized before moving out to the Bay Area as an engineer last year. Not only that, but it is especially difficult to access this network as a woman.   I believe that the informal culture of tech, in which professional and social mix to an extent that it is unclear whether an interaction is professional or romantic, harms women in finding mentorship. Ultimately, those with real power and influence in Silicon Valley are in a network of their own.

I learned this firsthand when I met with my first Very Important Person (VIP). This VIP invited me to meet at The Battery, described on its website as a “unique sort of social destination” featuring “an eager, inquisitive bunch, always curious, always on the hunt for new ideas and problems to solve…Here is where they came to refill their cups. To tell stories. To swap ideas. To eschew status but enjoy the company of those they respected. Here is where they came to feel at home on an evening out.” For an easy annual payment of $2400.

I was initially surprised when this VIP decided to meet with me, given how difficult I had found it to get face time with anyone. I was even more surprised when he talked at me for nearly an hour (ignoring my pre-prepared questions), until his next meeting – a tall blonde girl – arrived. Being just out of college and naive, I thought nothing of it, though he did reference how he “just wanted to get laid in college” during our meeting – until the emails and texts started coming. Over the course of the next month, I received email after email from this person, to all three of my email addresses which he somehow got, and later to my cell phone, saying “wanted to see me again” among other things. I will never be 100 percent sure about his intent. At the same time, why on earth would a VIP be so interested in seeing me again?

Whatever his intent, I am confident that it wasn’t mentorship. Despite my having prepared specific questions for our meeting that I wanted advice on, he instead talked at me for the full hour. I think that was the most upsetting piece of it for me. I wanted mentorship, and instead ended up getting weird emails and texts.

I am not the only one of my friends with a Battery story. I’ve been told that there is a secret bar behind the regular bar, which is where things get really weird.

This VIP is certainly an outlier. Only a small fraction of men have creepy intent. And yet, I am sure that plenty of white men aged 35 to 50 (the “older generation” by tech standards that I am trying to access) probably don’t want to talk to me for precisely that reason. Getting coffee with a young woman can look like a date even if it is not, and men in positions of power are especially wary of sexual harassment allegations.

I believe that the informal culture of hoodies and happy hours makes it more difficult for women to access mentorship. A college classmate who works in politics remarked that senior people in politics are more willing to chat with her, sometimes for hours. The informal culture of tech, in which men frequently grab a drink with a male mentor but often do not feel comfortable doing the same with a woman, means that it is difficult for women to get access. At least in politics, it is more clear whether a mentor is inappropriately hitting on you in a professional setting, because that setting is clearly professional.

What about senior female mentors? I have pursued this strategy as well with some limited success, but feel that there are simply not enough senior women to go around for this to be a viable solution. Attrition rates, coupled with the fact that this industry was far more hostile to women 10+ years ago, means that senior women are few and far between, as well as stretched thin. It is essential to connect with mentors of all genders.

I am enormously grateful to those who have provided me with mentorship, including peers just a year or two above me who have helped fill in some of the gaps. That being said, I feel that as long as succeeding in tech involves being well-connected in a way that women and minorities in tech are not, diversity in the industry will stall. The past year has felt more like The Social Network than I ever could have imagined – creepy but well-connected mentors, hiring decisions made over drinks, and all.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. RTG
    May 9, 2017 at 10:29 am

    Thank you for sharing your experience, though I am sorry you’ve had to have it in the first place.

    The phenomenon you are describing about how a professional culture that relies on informal mentoring can reinforce lack of diversity is well-understood and frequently discussed in academic circles. I can’t find references off-hand, but NSF’s ADVANCE program might be a place to start to learn more about research on this topic and recommended strategies for defeating it. It is very pernicious, though, because all of the solutions require the people in power to make a conscious decision to formalize mentoring pathways etc. Obviously, you aren’t in a position to do that, and this problem will make it harder for you to get there.

    I wish I could offer better solutions. Through requirements for Federal funding and enough of a critical mass of women to be outspoken, academia has started to become more conscious of these problems and trying to address them. A couple of recent articles illustrate this point:
    http://physicstoday.scitation.org/doi/10.1063/PT.3.3536
    https://www.vox.com/first-person/2017/5/4/15536932/women-stem-science-feminism

    SV doesn’t seem to think diversity is a high priority, despite their lip service to it. Actions speak louder than words, and diversity policies usually only pay off financially in the long term….something they don’t tend to prioritize in decision-making.

    But it’s not all terrible. I work at a pretty great tech company from the perspective of culture and work-life balance. People are kind and respectful, and family-time is given high priority. And I’m also one of two women on a 40 person team with exactly zero under-represented minorities. While my colleagues are open to talking about how to conduct interviews in a way that doesn’t disadvantage women and minorities, we don’t have a strong proactive commitment to diversity. As a smaller tech team, we also tend to place a high premium on experience…and as you point out, it’s hard to find senior women.

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    • RTG
      May 9, 2017 at 10:44 am

      Whoops, meant to say that despite efforts to address these issues in academia, there is a long way to go. Those articles, unfortunately, won’t make you feel better. But the first is written by a very prominent physicist. It’s amazing that she is calling out the field the way she is.

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