Ada Lovelace Day: Do Women in STEM Need A Strong Supportive Female Career Mentor?

(Credit: FindingAda.com)
So, here's a conundrum. Today is Ada Lovelace Day, and bloggers around the world are requested to write about a female geek, their personal geek girl hero.

And so I sat down to start writing and tried to think of a defining female geek in my life. It reminded me of a conversation with some colleagues from a few weeks ago about the female mentors who have helped them along their careers; the supporters who championed their causes, helped them seek opportunities and opened doors for them. These colleagues had benefitted from working alongside strong, smart women who took them under their wings and made it a priority to help them advance their careers.

My colleagues explained how instrumental these women had been in helping them find their voice, establish a presence, even locate opportunities for advancement. I was surprised to hear them refer to these women as "big sisters".

When I thought about it, I struggled to find that kind of female role model in  STEM who had helped me along, let alone one that took me under her wing and helped to further my career. I've had a couple of female mentors. They were more like trusted confidantes, sounding boards and essential sources of moral support. However, neither of them were in a position to exert any direct influence on my career path.

Instead, I've mostly had "big brothers" -- male managers, directors and team leads who helped me champion my causes and opened doors for me. In fact, in my tech jobs, I've always worked for men. In my comms and marketing jobs, I've always worked for women, many of whom didn't really understand what I actually do. More than once a female Comms lead said: "I don't know how you make it work, but just make sure it works." Which is fine, but doesn't make it easy to relate to one another or develop a mentorship.

In fact, in one job I worked for a woman who could be described as defensive and competitive with her own staff. In another, when one stakeholder lambasted me via email (in 14 point red caps, CC-ing all the execs, no less) for a project which was successful but which he felt went otherwise, it was a male director, not my own female boss, who pulled me into his office to make sure I was ok and to reassure me that the offender's views were not widely held, and that he would be dealt with accordingly.

So, I do consider myself lucky that in most of my jobs, I've had a personal champion. But I do wonder, today on Ada Lovelace Day, whether it is significant that all of those mentors have been male. Have missed out on some sort of synergy or empathy by not having a female champion? Is there a significant difference having a big brother or a big sister to really understand the struggles a woman goes through in her tech career? Would I have felt less often out on a limb by having a successful, experienced woman to talk to instead of a successful, experienced man? Did I miss out by not having a strong female perspective on my decisions and questions?  

Honestly, I have no idea.

What I do know is that I have had to work hard to prove myself, especially often being the only female nerd in the room. And maybe that's helped me study my subject matter harder, maybe it's pushed me to work faster than I might have otherwise, maybe it's driven me to have excessively high expectations of myself and my productivity. Maybe it wouldn't have been so difficult with another female in the room, especially if she had been a strong leader and if she had been advocating for me. Then again, maybe not.

And so I ask my fellow giik girls: Have you had the benefit of female mentorship in your career? What benefits did it bring you that you might not have experienced with a male mentor? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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