Musings about mentors

fancyladiesI am not a fan of separate women’s groups for just about anything – anyone who knows me is well aware of that. I just don’t get the need for it. My perspective may be skewed by my exposure to men over my lifetime – I had only brothers, I raised only sons, I worked with mostly males. “Women only” conferences, classes and organizations baffle me, especially because they are all driving toward the same thing – balancing the gender gap. I find this need to segregate an odd by-product of our desire to integrate. Why do we need separate technology classes from the men? It sounds like we need the teachers to speak slower and spell the big words for us. When I ask this question of other women, I often hear the feedback that it’s because women want a safe environment to ask questions and learn things without being intimidated. But that doesn’t resonate with me either – why do we get that luxury when men don’t? And how does that teach us how to navigate in an integrated office setting?

Lately, I have been pondering some of the dynamics that have been in existence for so long and why we haven’t managed to change them. One of those is what has been referred to as the “boys’ network”. For those of us women in a male-dominated industry, we feel that network all the time, cheerily bonded together and oblivious to us outsiders. But I believe we have unfairly demonized that network, giving it ulterior motives and suspecting it of cult-like secrecies we women aren’t privy to. The reality is… the guys just know each other. We’re busy networking in our own little secret societies and ignoring the larger fact that, by doing this, we aren’t interacting as part of that network. They go to the conferences, they sign up to speak or lead workshops, they gather at venues where they can meet, learn, and develop connections. They aren’t excluding us… we just aren’t showing up.

And then we end up with a self-perpetuating problem: women don’t go to conferences because there are no other women there and they feel intimidated. I blame part of that feeling on the fact that there are so few female speakers on stage – women can’t identify with the overall tenor of the conference when it is primarily male speakers. Hence, the launch of the @WomenInLine mentor program, where we try to match aspiring female speakers with coaches who can help them find the right conferences to submit talks to, prepare their speaker submissions, and put together their talks. The goal is to provide a male or female mentor for women who want to speak. Yes, I repeated myself. Because I violated my own principle of integration by focusing specifically on aspiring female speakers instead of just aspiring speakers.

And a close friend called ‘bullshit’ on me. :-)

I’m paraphrasing here but he basically said: “Don’t you think you are implying that women are weak and therefore they need mentors to help them and men don’t? Don’t you think the perception is that men can manage without help and women can’t?”

Yep, this is exactly what I have been railing about for decades now (and he’s been listening all these years). I’ll admit he gave me pause and made me reflect harder on what we’re doing here. So what led me to using @WomenInLine this way? Let me see if I can explain (and in the process remain convinced that it’s the right thing to do).

This blog has mentioned #WomenWhoTest before – a group of us who all want the same thing (more women in tech) and occasionally get on the phone to figure out how we can make a difference. In one of our calls, we talked about why there are so few women speakers at tech conferences. I pointed out that I talk to conference organizers who are all saddened by this as well and tell me that they want more women and often have more women on the agenda… but women either don’t submit or worse, tend to cancel more than men so the conference ends up losing the few women they schedule anyway. We talked about why that may be and theorized that, while public speaking is terrifying for men and women equally, women feel more comfortable bowing out of hard professional situations. I remember attending a “women’s leadership” talk at one company I worked at where a high-ranking woman at the company told us that it was okay to step down the ladder occasionally so you can work your way up again. I couldn’t imagine a man giving or taking that advice but it seems more acceptable for women to walk away from professional challenges and do something ‘easier’ for a while. Like getting the professional vapors, I guess, and fainting gently on the corporate veranda until it passes.

In her insightful article about raising boys vs girls, Jump! Magazine founder, Lynn Schreiber, talks about how we raise our boys to stay and fight in the face of aggression but we raise our girls to walk away and avoid situations that smell of danger. Nothing smells of danger more than public speaking or professional politics… and my feeling is that we are so busy raising nice girls that we have inadvertently created nervous women. To be fair, women have not had the opportunity to rise to high corporate levels or speak at conferences until this past generation so it’s not like we’ve had time to incorporate it into our DNA yet. We’re still learning how to do this.

I certainly don’t want to portray women as needing help more than men. I do, however, want to provide women with whatever safety net and encouragement they need to face the challenge and be a role model to other women. We need to learn to stick it out when the going gets harder, not walk away. And we need to learn how to be powerful professional voices so it comes naturally to our daughters.

I guess that’s why, when #WomenWhoTest started mulling over what we at the ground level could do to help, it seemed natural to open @WomenInLine to providing mentorships. My hope is that it’s temporary… that in another decade, people won’t even remember that we had to go to extraordinary measures to get women on conference agendas. My hope is that we stop even thinking about conference rosters in terms of gender ratios because it’s become a non-issue.

Until then, a little leg-up is okay.