Katie Anderson

Northwestern Mutual Senior Engineer

Erin Richmond

Northwestern Mutual Senior Engineer

Three Ways to Make Mentoring Girls in Tech More Valuable

As part of Northwestern Mutual’s technology outreach program, hi, Tech, we recently completed a mentoring initiative designed to encourage high school girls to pursue careers in technology. Sixteen employees (mostly women technologists, along with several male allies) were paired with 16 girls from Ronald Reagan High School in Milwaukee. Over the course of a year, our goal was to encourage and inspire them.

We'd like to think we made a positive impact. And we know we learned a few things about how to make the experience valuable for our mentees – tips that might be helpful if you're considering being a mentor yourself.

  • Share your tech journey. When we were in high school, girls were definitely the minority in our programming and computer classes and we didn’t really have female technologists to mentor us. That's slowly changing, but it can still be intimidating for girls to pursue technology. Not only does it tend to be a male-dominated field, many students don’t know where to begin. As a mentor, you can help show them the way. The girls from Ronald Reagan High School seemed to love learning about our career paths and experiences, and we hope our stories helped them visualize potential paths for themselves.
  • Connect the dots to the broader world. Some students seem to have a narrow idea of what a tech career is all about. It doesn't necessarily mean doing heads-down coding every day for the rest of their lives or working in Silicon Valley, if that’s not something they’re interested in pursuing. There is a wide variety of tech jobs and by participating in mentoring programs like this, you can help students see how technology can be applied to different fields. In financial services, for example, we have to store data securely, create ways for our financial advisors to work efficiently and develop programs that make it easier for our clients to become financially strong. More and more, those objectives are met by using technology and the critical-thinking and problem-solving skills learned in STEM fields. Educating students about the various tech careers and linking technology to students’ interests is a great way to inspire them to pursue a career in technology.
  • Make yourself available. During the year-long program, when mentors periodically got together for group luncheons with our mentees, we spent a lot of time focusing on career journeys or doing activities, which we knew the girls found interesting and (hopefully!) inspiring. But it’s also important to get to know your mentees as individuals. Make sure you optimize time for one-on-one conversations, so you can more specifically zero in on the needs of (and offer more targeted advice to) the mentees.

We feel great about what we accomplished, and we know – in at least one case – we may have made a big difference in a young woman's plans for her future. In their sophomore year, students at Ronald Reagan High School choose a topic and create a project around it as part of their college-prep curriculum. One of the girls we mentored was planning a project around her photography hobby, but changed her mind after our program. Instead, she created a video about girls in tech that she hoped would encourage other girls to pursue technology. A few of us were interviewed as part of her project, and we couldn't have been more proud. She encapsulated what this program was all about in her project – encouraging, supporting and inspiring girls in technology.

Women in Tech: Notes from the Grace Hopper Celebration

This past fall, I attended the world's largest gathering of women technologists. As I reflect on the experience of being surrounded by 25,000 strong and talented women, here are three things that stood out.