Mentoring programmes are failing women in technology

From business leaders across technology and diversity & inclusion to engineering leads who are managing teams day to day, we’re all trying to drive change across our organisations to increase diversity. However, a lack of representation and opaque career progression means women joining the sector face additional barriers. So much, in fact, that our recent research found 55% of female computer scientists feel their gender has hindered them in their career options. 

Mentoring is often touted as the solution for forward-thinking organisations committed to improving diversity. But while these programs help, it’s clearly not enough: across the technology industry, McKinsey found that only 52 women are promoted to manager for every 100 men. To drive systematic change, organisations must find ways to support women across all stages of their careers, not just when they first enter the sector. That requires buy-in from high-level sponsors with the power to open the door to leadership opportunities. 


The case for mentoring

As a tool for embedding employees in the workplace, mentoring is popular for good reasons. It brings colleagues together to provide mutually beneficial support, inspiration, and knowledge sharing. It offers a space for discussing challenges or personal development goals outside the formal structure of line management. And for diversity and inclusion purposes, it establishes a safe environment for mentees from underrepresented backgrounds to connect and ask questions. 

For women in tech, the impact of feeling part of the team, being listened to, and seeing a path to success shouldn't be overlooked. Those with a mentor are almost 15% more likely to believe their colleagues value their contributions and are up to 20% more likely to be satisfied with their job. By effectively integrating employees into the workplace, mentoring leads to greater job satisfaction and a higher perception of workplace efficacy. Over time, those impressions add up: Deloitte found employees who intended to stay with their organisation for more than five years were twice as likely to have a mentor than not. 

Mentoring can also empower junior employees with a vision for career success. For example, by pairing female employees with more senior women in tech, organisations can show women paths to leadership they might not otherwise have considered, while also increasing the visibility of women throughout their business. When it comes to believing in their own abilities enough to take on new workplace challenges, access to a relatable and knowledgeable sounding board can help women overcome impostor syndrome and grow in confidence. This ensures that, when women are given the opportunity to advance, they believe in their capabilities enough to take on the challenge. In a study of female executives, KPMG found 72% looked to the advice of a mentor when they felt impostor syndrome about taking on a new role. 


The need for sponsorship

However, although mentoring is powerful, it doesn’t offer women everything they need to succeed. PwC found that while 23% of STEM roles in the UK are filled by females, this figure drops to just 5% for leadership roles in tech. That significant decrease reveals a systematic failure in the way women are supported to progress and develop. To bridge the gender gap, we need to go beyond mentoring programmes and strategies that increase the visibility of women in senior leadership positions. For a long time, businesses have focussed on increasing visibility under the mantra ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. However, this is only half of the picture. If women aren't also recognised for their achievements, they won’t be given the necessary opportunities to progress. Alongside mentoring and visibility initiatives, companies must take action to create sponsors who will proactively advocate for female technologists across the higher levels of their organisation.

Workplace sponsors are a powerful way to address the systemic barriers that prevent women from advancing in their careers. When it comes to advocating for women organisation-wide, sponsors provide the power and authority to elevate junior colleagues. They help address the gender gap by ensuring women are given leading roles on stepping-stone projects, shouting loudly about their existing good work to other stakeholders in the company, and providing opportunities to work on initiatives with exposure to management situations. In a survey of senior-level women, McKinsey found the number one success factor cited was sponsorship by a senior leader.

Unlike mentors, who are experienced but may not occupy a position of authority, sponsors are likely to be leaders within their organisation. Possible roles include Chief Information Officers or Heads of Engineering. However, any leader that can actively open doors for junior colleagues could take on the position. If an employee demonstrates appropriate skill and potential, these sponsors can even turn into champions. These are senior stakeholders willing to put their personal capital and reputations on the line to advocate for promising new leadership candidates.

Without sponsorship, women-led initiatives can struggle. In McKinsey’s 2022 Women in the Workplace survey, only half of the women respondents said their managers made sure they got credit for their work. When it came to managers showing an interest in career advancement, this figure dropped even lower, to just 43%. There’s a pressing need to address the lack of support women receive to move up through an organisation, and sponsors are an effective solution. This is because they can strengthen the case for future promotions by putting women on projects that allow them to showcase their abilities. They can also encourage women to take on increased responsibilities while providing enough external support to ensure each project is successful. Deloitte reported that women in STEM careers with sponsors were 70% more likely to have their ideas endorsed, 119% more likely to have their ideas developed, and 200% more likely to have their ideas implemented than those without.

As well as improving career development and progression opportunities, sponsors dramatically improve how women see their potential. As more women progress to leadership positions under a sponsorship program, other female employees see it’s possible to progress within the company. At a time when McKinsey reports more women leaders than ever are leaving their companies, that possibility of progression is essential for improved retention and engagement. Of women leaders that switched jobs in the last two years, 48% cited opportunities to advance as a contributing factor, and 18% an organisation’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.


Closing thoughts

Improvements in the number of women progressing are only possible if existing senior leaders proactively support junior female colleagues to succeed. Currently, only 22% of women have a workplace sponsor. That means up to 78% of women could benefit from better support for their ideas, credit for their work, and engagement with their career potential.

For organisations serious about improving diversity, focusing on individual development through mentoring is no longer enough. Improved access to leadership opportunities can only come from structural changes made possible by sustained efforts from company leaders. Adopting a sponsorship model alongside existing mentoring programs is a vital next step to help talented women reach their potential within the technology sector.