Career WISE women in computer science

Sponsors, Mentors and Allies

Credit: Wikipedia
Credit: Wikipedia

I don’t think we talk enough about sponsors in general, whereas at every woman in tech event, oh, another mentoring opportunity.

I’m all set for mentors, and have enough women who I offer support too that I can’t actively look for more. They are super helpful, but as I observed to the fabulous Jo Miller recently, “mentors give me perspective, but sponsors give me opportunity.” Sometimes we need to stop letting ourselves be over-mentored, stop trying to make ourselves feel better and find coping mechanisms to handle whatever situation we happen to be in… and instead find a better situation.

Sponsors help find that situation.

Sponsors can also be mentors, and they can be allies, but here’s the thing. They don’t have to be. Usually it may be better for them not to be the person you offload all your crazy on – that’s what your mentor is for (or even better! A friend).

And most importantly, they don’t have to be allies. It’s great if they are, but if I think about the sponsors who have done good things for my career of late, at least 2 out of 3 have no idea what a microaggression is. One of them persists in thinking that the grammatical problems of “they” outweighs the problems of “he”. Obviously I disagree with him on that point, but I also think that for me the good things that he’s done outweigh that particular issue.

Larry Summers, I think, is one of the best examples of this. Said some very damaging things about women’s aptitudes for STEM, but was an excellent sponsor for Sheryl Sandberg.

Ultimately, sponsorship looks like this. There’s an opportunity, and a white dude wants it, because there is always a white dude that wants it. But the sponsor advocates for the woman, or other marginalised person, who they believe will be better at it, who deserves this opportunity.

It’s not that white dudes have what they want, and other people get what’s left over. Because what is left is mostly junior, and often thankless positions (see also: the Joan of Arc CEO). Sponsorship is about having power, and using it to advocate. White men have been doing it for each other all along. They don’t have a special word for it, because for them it’s mostly just “going to work”.

And I think this is the hardest part for managers in the tech industry to grasp, however enlightened. Is that diversity means that if white dudes have to start competing with the rest of the population, it won’t always “just happen” that they are the best for the job. Sometimes they won’t be. Maybe, they never were.

A woman, or other marginalised person, will be instead.

Note: like many such things in the tech industry, women have it bad, but other marginalised groups (especially as one of my friends puts it, “multi-norities”, e.g. women of colour) have it much worse. One advantage white women have in this situation (of many) is they sometimes remind older white men of their daughters.

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