Shae Howard, a Partner Business Consultant at Cisco Systems in Sydney, knows how challenging it can be to work in an industry where women are the minority. That’s why she’s part of the Lucy Mentoring Program. It’s her way of guiding and inspiring the next generation of women IT professionals.
In Australia, as in just about every other corner of the world, women are underrepresented in the IT industry. The Council of Australian Governments reports that Australian women regularly outperform their male peers at school and are more likely than men their age to hold a bachelor’s degree, yet women are still outnumbered by men in the engineering and IT sectors.
As a seasoned IT professional, Shae has seen how women can benefit from support and guidance when developing professional skills and planning career paths. “It is critical for young women’s career advancement to have access to female role models and mentors in the industry,” she says.
Shae was already working with the University of Technology in Sydney (UTS), through a Cisco program called the Connected Women Technology Network, to provide guidance to young women interested in IT careers, when UTS asked her to join the Lucy Mentoring Program, a successful project now in its fourth year that gives young women who are studying engineering and IT a head start by pairing them with experienced female professionals.
When Shae looked at the Lucy program, she saw that students receive about 40 hours of guided project work with a senior professional mentor. She thought her colleagues might be able to take that a step further, and designed a special program that adds group mentoring experiences to the regular program. Through the group format, students get an extra 20 to 30 hours of mentoring, and have more opportunities to explore different roles at different levels of the organization.
Shae recruited six mentors to provide one-on-one coaching, and arranged group events that involved people from different Cisco organizations, from PR to HR. She even set up half-day workshops with female executives from Cisco’s industry partners, so the mentees could hear their perspectives, too.
“It wasn’t a hard sell,” says Shae.
Lucy mentors are generally mid-level and senior professionals. Kathryn Porter, technical support manager at Cisco, was quick to sign up. “I work in technical services, and I lead a group of amazing engineers, but they’re mostly men,” she says. Porter became a mentor because she wanted to dispel the myth that men are hard to work with, and she wanted to show young women that Cisco is a great place to work. “This isn’t about being a volunteer, this is about attracting the best young talent.”
Students spend four months with their mentors. To make the best use of their time together, it’s important to match students with mentors who have something in common. Kaizel Banicevic, a fourth-year student at UTS, was paired with Veronica Marriott, a senior manager in Technical Services at Cisco. Kaizel and Veronica have a shared interest in Japanese language and culture, and a passion for creating meaningful value from IT solutions. Kaizel was interested to see that Veronica’s work involves a lot of international travel and business dealings with people across the Asia Pacific region. Says Kaizel, “The mentoring sessions could not have come at a better time. The one-on-one sessions were like having a sounding board for my aspirations and fears.”
The students were all working toward bachelor of science degrees in information technology, a curriculum that includes two Cisco Networking Academy courses.
A major topic of the group meetings is how to develop career goals and achieve them. Kaizel learned that career planning isn’t always a linear process. She learned the importance of staying open minded and embracing change, not just because change is inevitable, but because it can bring new things and take you in different directions.
The group meetings also helped Kaizel with interview techniques that made her more confident and more desirable as a job candidate. “It is important, particularly for undergraduates, to be able to clearly and quickly articulate your value, in order to not only appear more confident and capable as a potential employee, but also so you can get the kind of work that will play to your strengths,” she says.
Shae gets the Lucy participants to understand that there’s not just one type of IT career. “They might begin the process thinking they want to be an engineering intern, but end it thinking they want to be a business analyst or a program manager.” By shadowing their mentors, asking questions, and participating in group discussions, graduates of the Lucy program have a better idea of what their strengths are, and are better at describing the kind of career they want to pursue.