How do you coach and mentor women engineers?
July 23, 2019
I am a white, cis, male engineer, and a relatively new team lead (3 years experience). Up until 8 months ago I had never had to manage a female engineer. At first, I was pretty anxious with the experience, given all the horror stories out there about what female engineers go through, and I did not want to be one to add to that.
I think I have done a alright job so far, she is a star on my team and seems to be genuinely enjoying the new job. I am in the process of now moving to a more management role, and she is the person I would like to take over some of my current responsibilities as a tech lead.
My question is whether you have any advice on coaching/mentoring women engineers, especially in this transition of moving her to a more leadership role, and also on how you think this differs from mentoring another male engineer.
First of all, congratulations on your new management role! This sounds like an exciting time of growth for you. 🚀
It’s good to hear that you’re interested in being a good manager for all your employees of all genders and taking proactive steps towards that goal. I think you’re already on the path headed in the right direction, and hopefully, I can provide a few more signposts along the way.
I should caveat that I am not a manager—but I am a woman and I have been managed and I have managed interns who have been women, so I’m also not not an expert here.
For the most part, you should coach and manage your female and non-binary employees the same as you coach and manage your male employees. All your reports are people, which means they are complex individuals with unique needs and goals and quirks and foibles.
It sounds like most of the other people on your team right now are dudes of some variety. What are the common ways that you manage them? What are the ways you specialize your coaching to each person? How do you normally judge their performance?
If you notice that you manage most of your male employees with one perspective or technique, but don’t use that same technique with your female employee—that’s probably a sign that something is up. This could mean that you are unfairly treating your female employee and not giving her the same chances. But that doesn’t always look like blatant sexism and misogyny. Sometimes it looks like implicit bias and quiet little assumptions and subtly different attitudes towards the same behavior.
Be mindful of the variations in the ways you treat your employees and the standards to which you hold them. Notice if it’s because of their unique personalities and traits, or because of general assumptions. Be mindful and be willing to change!
But: there are exceptions. Your female and non-binary employees (and employees of any different form of marginalized identity) will have a different set of experiences in the workplace from your male employees. And you should be prepared for that.
Being a good manager of a woman includes being a good ally to women. If you are not doing the work of recognizing the ways that people who are not men are harmed and passed over in the workplace, you might not be able to see the ways you’re contributing to or benefiting from that system (aka The Patriarchy™).
So how can you be a good ally? I am not a perfect ally, but here are some of the steps that I try to follow (most of which I have learned from listening to Black women on Twitter):
- Listen to marginalized people. Follow them on Twitter. Read their blog posts. Buy their books. Attend their workshops. If you are friends with them in real life1, pay attention to their stories when they feel like sharing them2.
Believe marginalized people, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Especially if it makes you uncomfortable. When someone tells you what has happened to them in their own life, believe them. When someone is angry and expresses frustration, do not tell them to try to understand the other side or ask them to express their fury in a way that feels more comfortable or polite. Hold that thought to yourself, nod your head, and keep listening.
If someone says that someone you know and respect harassed them or made them feel uncomfortable or unwelcome, believe them. It may make you sad or angry. It may mean that you can’t enjoy some things you used to love. That sucks. Welcome to the club.
Try to proactively do better. If you’ve been listening to people, they’ve probably told you some of the things not to do and maybe even a few things that you can do. For example, if someone makes an inappropriate joke, tell them that it’s not funny and “we don’t do that here.”
Think about the things you want to avoid doing, and the things you want to start doing. Don’t wait for someone to individually ask you to step up!
Accept that you’re going to mess up sometimes, then apologize and do better. It’s going to happen. You’re going to make a mistake. You’ll catch yourself thinking something and realize it’s racist or sexist or homophobic or ableist. You’ll say the wrong phrase. You’ll tell the wrong joke. You’ll make the wrong assumption.
Whether you notice it yourself or someone points it out to you, pay attention. Acknowledge you were wrong. Apologize to the people you harmed, whether you meant to hurt them or not. And then do your best to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
You are not irredeemably broken if you mess up. But if you keep making the same mistake over and over again, your apologies will ring false and we will see what truly matters to you and know it isn’t us.
Being a good manager or being an effective coach is not just being a good ally. But it’s a baseline and a good starting point! As an ally who is a manager, you’ll have an idea of the unique challenges your report might face because of her gender and you can advocate for her in the workplace.
For example, many women get very critical, biased performance feedback. We are either too emotional or too cold; too soft-spoken or too outspoken; too shy or too bossy. We can’t win. If your report is in a leadership role, feedback from other people on your team may be used as part of her performance evaluation. Pay attention to the words and phrases and patterns used to describe her, particularly if it’s negative feedback. Explicitly discount gendered feedback—from people she leads, from peers, or from your own manager—in discussions about raises or promotions. Don’t let it be used against her to prevent her career growth. You might need to do some investigating to find out if there is a valid concern intermixed with the bias and figure out how to deliver that feedback to her instead.
Women are often undermined in meetings, interrupted, or ignored when they raise ideas. If you see your report constantly being asked to take notes or do minor administrivia for your team, set up a rotation or offer to do it yourself. If someone interrupts her, redirect the conversation back to her. If someone repeats an idea she had earlier, explicitly give her credit in that moment.
But most importantly—listen to your report. Take your cues from her. You do not have to sit down and tell her “I am a feminist and I believe in women and I want to support you as a woman, so what can I do to make you, a woman, successful in this role?”3 Just show her by your actions.
Some women are very passionate about diversity and inclusion. They may want to have a lot of conversations about the specific struggles they are facing or how they feel discriminated against based on their gender.
Other women are honestly much more concerned about their other marginalized identities. They may care about their gender, but their race or ethnicity or sexuality is a much more pressing matter in terms of the discrimination they face on a daily basis.
Some women don’t actually care very much about identities and marginalization and oppression. They may not call themselves feminists. They may say things like “I’m not like other women” or “most women just aren’t into tech and computers.”
Some women are just not that interested in talking about their gender, and really just want to do a good job, get a good paycheck, and go home without much fuss.
I am not all of those women. I don’t necessarily agree with all of those women. But they all deserve a supportive workplace and good managers and the opportunity to succeed and grow.
If you haven’t already, ask your report: “How can I best support you and help you grow as your manager?” Let her decide how she wants to answer that. If she brings up gender, great. If not, great.
Maybe she doesn’t think much about her gender at work. Maybe it doesn’t feel like a big deal. Maybe it is a big deal and she’s just not sure if she can trust you yet because she’s had bad experiences with other managers.
Respect those boundaries and preferences. Don’t end up in a place where you care more about her gender in relation to her work than she does.
If she is vulnerable and open with you about some of the challenges she faces as a woman and how she would like you to support her, prove to her that you are worthy of that trust by believing her and not punishing her for sharing any of that information with you. And as always, keep listening.
At the end of the day, we are all people. Unique and weird and wonderful in our own ways. Some of us have a harder time of it than others. Don’t make it worse, and if you can, make it better. But don’t lose sight of the person for all the ways the world limits them. 💖
Wishing you the best of luck in your management adventures,
Do not go out and make friends with people exclusively because you do not have any/enough friends with their particular demographics. That is using people. We do not use people.↩
Do not ask your friends to teach you all about their identities or tell you their most upsetting life experiences when they thought they were just going out for hot pot on a Tuesday. If they want to talk about what’s going on in their life with respect to their identity, they will.↩
In fact, I would be quite upset if my manager focused so explicitly on my gender like this. It would make me feel like they saw me as my gender and not as a stellar employee who loves to wear floral dresses while shipping beautiful code.↩