Coach like a pro: Why women in IT need mentors

By Kathleen Sibley, CIO Canada |  Career, mentoring, women in IT

When Paula Bohn first graduated from university with a degree in French and German, she moved across an entire continent to pursue her goal of becoming a language teacher in Europe.

Until recently, as a woman in IT, her aspiration to ascend the corporate IT ladder to a CIO-equivalent position has seemed in many ways equally distant. She's not alone: According to 2008 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 27 per cent of IT managers across different industries were women. Canada is likely to share a similar makeup.

Fortunately for Bohn, a field solution manager in Microsoft Canada's enterprise platform division, a recently launched e-mentoring program for women in IT may help close that gap.

The program, a joint Canadian Advanced Technology Association-Women in Technology (CATA-WIT) and CIO Association of Canada (CIOCAN) venture, pairs women in IT positions with CIOs for a year. The mentoring takes place via e-mail and phone for the most part, although some may meet in person or use videoconferencing if feasible. Mentees must have five years of IT experience or one to four years in a management position. Mentors, who are both male and female, are senior executives, mostly at the VP level, from all industries.

At the moment, the two organizations are running a pilot in Ontario, with plans to roll it out nationally next year.

Sandra Saric, vice-president, mentoring at CATA-WIT, says in research her organization has conducted with Ryerson University and the University of Ottawa, as well as in focus groups across Canada, young women in IT consistently identify access to leadership development and mentoring as the two key support systems they most lack. Response to the call for applications to the program supports those findings, Saric says. Of CATA-WIT's approximately 75 Ontario chapter members, 26 applied immediately.

Although women are often natural communicators and collaborators, they frequently lack the networking skills they need to capitalize on those communication and collaboration skills, says Saric. "This program provides opportunities for women to make that connection and bridge the gap between where they want to go and what they want to do."

The long and winding path

Bohn, like many of her peers also on a career path to the C-suite, has taken a somewhat circuitous route from the outset. Instead of teaching languages as she had originally planned upon graduation, she ended up at Sony Communications. "They were looking at translation services software. They said, 'you're an interpreter for us, you should see this prototype,'" she says. "I got hooked on IT."

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