What it’s like to have male mentors as a woman in tech

Susan Kelly, a director of technology at Verizon’s Innovation Labs in Waltham, Massachusetts, has been in the tech world for 20 years, working as an engineer and manager at tech startups and companies. In part, she credits her success to a succession of mentors. Pretty much all of them were men.

Given tech’s gender inequality – women hold just 21.7 percent of tech jobs among 60 top tech companies and only 14.5 percent of executive roles, according to new research by the Anita Borg Institute. Women who work their way up the ladder at major tech companies will, at some point along the way, need the support of their male colleagues to succeed.

“My experience is that most of the people in positions of influence have been men,” she said. “So, the people who have helped me along my career have mostly been men.”

Kelly, who shared her thoughts on redefining mentorship at the Grace Hopper Conference, the largest gathering of female technologists, which wrapped up last week in Houston, Texas, said the men who do want to support women don’t always go about it in the right way.

“Men sometimes … [They] won’t say things to a woman that they would to a man that would help grow their careers,” she said. “And I think that’s really detrimental.”

She recalls in annual performance reviews, many of her male managers wouldn’t offer her feedback, worried that their advice could come off the wrong way. So Kelly was sure when she came to these meetings with specific talking points, asking managers to specifically offer feedback on where she wanted to improve.

There’s also hesitation on giving advice on communication, presentation skills and dress. Kelly recalls one of her most influential mentors early in her career had helped her as she worked her way to senior management, and said she was ready for the promotion. But he had one last bit of advice: “Stop dressing like a first grader.”

At the time in the company, all the men and women in senior management roles wore suits to work. She usually wore distressed blue jeans. “I am sure it was an uncomfortable conversation for him,” she laughed. But she said she wasn’t put off.

“He was really honest with me, it was very genuine,” she said. “It was … ‘Now that you’re in senior management, you have to dress like a senior manager.'”

“It all comes down to honesty,” she said. ” If you’ve developed that rapport … it should be taken as honest, constructive criticism.”

That honest feedback is something that has helped Kelly as she manages a team of 20 at Verizon, and continues to mentor young people in tech. She was one of the first employees at Verizon’s Innovation Labs in Waltham, Mass., one of two such facilities in the country, and built her own team through seeking “smarts over skills” and challenging recruits to puzzles and coding challenges she created.

Today her team’s task is to create innovative data features that can attract and retain customers while keeping Verizon’s data costs low and pricing competitive. They’ve rolled out features such as “mobile perks” (a program that rewards customers with extra data when they shop at certain stores), third party sponsored data (where companies cover the cost of data for certain streaming content), and flexible billing plans (such as unlimited data after hours).

Mentorship is still important to Kelly – she said relies on a network of people from different backgrounds and perspectives, including non-technical folks and junior developers, to keep her well rounded.

Her advice for mentees just starting to cultivate this personal advisory board is to keep the people who can help you grow.

“What you’re good at, you’re good at, and everyone notices that,” she said. “But it’s the flaws that they also notice, and if you don’t correct those that’s probably what’s limiting you from growing in your career.”

This story was written as part of a Women in Tech fellowship sponsored by the GroundTruth Project and SiliconANGLE Media’s theCUBE. Other stories reported from the Anita Borg Institute’s Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference in Houston can be found at the TechTruth Women in Tech site.