Lisa Ta earned a bachelor’s degree in IT, but worried she wouldn’t find a fulfilling job. She didn’t know any women in the industry and, at times, felt alone in classrooms dominated by men. When she joined the Lucy Mentoring Program, she found the inspiration and encouragement she needed, and is now a project manager at Cisco.
In Australia, as in just about every other corner of the world, women are scarce 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 make up just 20% of all employees in the IT industry.
From an early age, Lisa knew she wanted to pursue a career in computer networking. “I’ve wanted to be a part of where technology is going,” she said. “My uncle works in networking, and he inspired me and helped me find a passion for IT and how it has transformed our lives in areas of education, health care, retail, entertainment and so much more.”
After graduating high school in 2010, Lisa enrolled at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Information Technology. Although she enjoyed the coursework, she struggled to find acceptance among her peers. “It was a bit difficult being a female in a male-dominated field,” she said. “In one exam, I was surrounded by almost 30 men,” and this didn’t change until her second year at school, when she was introduced to the Lucy Mentoring Program and Cisco.
At the time, Shae Howard, a Go To Market Manager at Cisco in Sydney, was working with UTS through a Cisco program called the Connected Women Technology Network, where she provided guidance to young women interested in IT careers. The university asked her to join the Lucy Mentoring Program, which gives young women who are studying engineering and IT a head start by pairing them with experienced female professionals.
As a seasoned IT professional, Shae has seen how women like Lisa 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 said.
When Lisa’s friend approached her about the program, she was hesitant to join at first. “I had no idea what Lucy was, and I didn’t know what the time commitment was going to be,” she said. “My friend told me to give it a shot,” and Lisa did.
Lucy mentors are generally mid-level and senior professionals. Shae recruited 6 of them from Cisco the first year. Kathryn Porter, a technical support manager, was quick to sign up. “I work in technical services, and I lead a group of amazing engineers, but they’re mostly men,” she said. Kathryn 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.”
When Lisa joined the Lucy program in its first year, she received about 35 hours of one-on-one mentoring from a senior professional. A group mentoring component gave the students an extra 20 to 30 hours of time with IT professionals and more opportunities to explore different roles at different levels of the organization.
“I wanted the girls to know that there are women out there who have successful careers in IT,” Shae said. “There’s a wide variety of careers available at Cisco, but the students typically have a narrow view and don’t see all of the jobs they may be passionate about.”
Lisa, who knew she didn’t want to write code, said, “I learned that to be in IT, you don’t have to learn how to program, or create a script – rather, you can drive projects and lead changes in non-technical roles.”
Students spend 6 months with their mentors, learning skills they can translate into success at any job. “We teach them communication skills, problem solving skills, and the ability to see the bigger picture,” Shae said. “We need to let the students know that it’s okay to have their own voice.” By the end of the 6-month mentoring sessions, the girls are confident in most situations, from introducing themselves to company executives to asking the appropriate questions in job interviews.
Now in its third year, the Lucy Mentoring Program at Cisco has expanded to 8 young women, and Shae is adding even more to the overall experience. “We are bringing in representatives from LinkedIn to help the girls develop their resumes,” she said. “I also want to give the students tours of our partner companies so they may see all of the different career opportunities in the field.”
Before joining the program, Lisa knew very little about public speaking and formal business meetings. “What you say and how you project your voice, including the volume, tone, pitch and rhythm contributes to your words,” she said. Lisa used those skills during her interview with Cisco, which helped her start a career she’s grown to love.
In January 2015, Lisa began working as a project manager in Cisco’s Technical Services Graduate Program, scheduling training sessions, analyzing data, and sharing her findings with a global team.
The Lucy Mentoring program helped Lisa develop the communication skills and confidence to pursue such a demanding career. “I don’t feel hesitant to walk up and ask for help,” she said. “I love the challenge, and it feels good because I know I’m helping the team and getting experience I wouldn’t get anywhere else.”
Lisa joins a growing number of women at UTS who have been inspired by mentors like Shae to pursue IT careers. “As a woman, you shouldn’t feel like your career options are restricted by your gender, “she said. “It was so inspiring coming into the Lucy Mentoring Program because you have the opportunity to speak to women in IT and see how they’ve driven success in the industry.”