Mentorship key for women in IT, says Collaborate panel

Women need to find others who can help promote their growth within an organization

ORLANDO -- Mentors and sponsors can play a key role in helping women advance their careers in information technology, according to members of a panel discussion at the Collaborate 11 Oracle user conference here.

Women continue to be heavily outnumbered by men in the technology workplace and still need to contend with lingering perceptions about their abilities, the panelists said. As a result, they need to not only constantly push themselves forward but also find someone who can help them.

Women need to take ownership of the value they bring to the organization, said Beth Renstrom, a senior manager of product management at Oracle development who has more than 17 years of experience in IT. "Take ownership of what you have done and make sure you are letting people know what you have accomplished," she said.

It's also important for a woman in IT to find someone to mentor and sponsor her within the organization, said Helen Berg, vice president of consulting with Hitachi Consulting. "It is great to have people promote you," he said. "If you have someone run interference for you, someone greasing the skids, it can be good (for your career)."

Berg said that in her case, when she took a director role at her previous organization, a woman who was doing the hiring actively promoted Berg throughout the organization by talking about the things she could do. "So she was a very strong sponsor for me," Berg said.

The same thing happened when Berg was running a very large project, and a senior C-level executive of the company, a male this time, actively promoted her work, she said.

Women who are already in influential positions need to be willing to sponsor and mentor those that are just breaking into the field, Renstrom said. At the same time, it's important for women to support others who are above them in the hierarchy, she said.

"Two out of three people would rather work for a man than a woman, which is surprising," because her best bosses were women, Renstrom said.

Much of the attitude stems from women in managerial roles being perceived a certain way, such as being motherly or more caring then men. "And those are not the traits that got her there. So I think it's important for all of us to not only mentor but to also support women who have achieved something," she said.

Mentoring can be especially useful in organizations where the women are not organized into any groups or have any sort of interaction with each other, added Michelle Malcher, a database team lead at DRW.

Sherri Brouwer, a senior product manager with Microsoft with over 20 years of IT experience, said she tends to use mentors "very strategically.

"I use different mentors for different things," Brouwer said. Some might be executive sponsors, while others might have a special skill that she would like to acquire. "I have shifted a lot of mentors over time," she said.

Mentoring can be especially useful in organizations where the women are not organized into any groups or have any sort of interaction with each other, added Michelle Malcher, a database team lead at DRW.

"We condition others in how you want them to look at us," Brouwer said, "It's in what we say 'yes' to and what we say 'no' to.

Such advice comes at a time when the number of women in IT appears to be rapidly dwindling . According to the National Center for Women & IT, in 2009, only 25% of U.S IT professionals were women, compared to 36% in 1991.

Just 18% of college degrees awarded in computer and information sciences in 2008 went to women, which is less than half compared to 1985.

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