March 2017 | Cynthia Rodrigues

Mentoring women for success

TCS is a frontline supporter of the 'million women mentors' initiative to enhance gender diversity in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics

For most of history,” said the inimitable Virginia Woolf, “Anonymous was a woman.” And that is how it has remained for the most part.

The Million Women Mentors initiative has focused national attention on issues of gender, ethnic and wage equities

Across countries, cultures and centuries, women have been faced with barriers, often impeding their right to grow professionally. This has changed over time; women everywhere have worked hard to make their presence felt, not least in the corporate and political spheres. But progress has been painfully slow.

The situation isn’t necessarily better in developed societies. According to the US Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, women account for merely 24 percent of jobs in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics — collectively known as STEM — despite representing 48 percent of the American workforce.

The US has, in recent years, seen a decline in the number of girls opting for STEM disciplines and jobs. Fewer candidates means a consequent lack of female role models in the respective STEM industries.

It was to right this imbalance that STEMconnector, a consortium of institutions concerned with STEM education and the future of human capital in the US, and the National Girls Collaborative Project came together to launch the Million Women Mentors (MWM) initiative. Kick-started in the US in January 2014 by Edie Fraser, CEO of STEMconnector, the initiative has Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) as one of its founding members. The objective is simple: increase the interest and confidence of girls and women to persist and succeed in STEM programmes and careers.

“The idea behind founding MWM was to issue a call to action and address the lack of adequate role models and mentors for girls and young women,” explains Balaji Ganapathy, head of workforce effectiveness at TCS. “The goal was to secure a pledge from a million professionals, both men and women, to engage as mentors to increase the interest and confidence of girls and women to persist and succeed in STEM programmes and careers.”

Lofty goal
The initiative began with the goal of reaching a million pledges in three years. “On December 1, 2016, we achieved one million pledges,” adds Mr Ganapathy, who serves as vice chair of the MWM leadership council, which provides direction to the initiative. “We will now be working on doubling this to two million pledges, while at the same time ensuring that the initial million pledges lead to impactful mentoring relationships.”

The Million Women Mentors movement needs role models, both men and women, who can inspire its target group

The companies that signed up as partners in the project had to make a mentoring pledge, engage employees as mentors, work with nonprofits that serve girls and women, scale up their related internal and external mentoring programmes, capture relevant data on STEM education and employment, and share their learning to help grow the initiative nationally and globally.

The scope and intensity of the work has prompted well-known corporate entities such as PepsiCo, BP, Cisco, Sodexo, Walmart and Johnson & Johnson to sign up as partners. National nonprofit partners included Mentored Pathways, Girl Scouts, National 4-H Council, American Association of University Women, Oak Ridge Associated Universities and Girls Inc. Their numbers were bolstered in March 2016 by the bi-partisan support of 20 American senators and congressional leaders. Also part of the MWM movement are 39 US states, with two governors and 17 lieutenant governors serving as honorary chairs of their respective state teams.

Mentors are required to contribute 20 hours of time each year to guide a young woman towards a STEM career. MWM has put together a variety of resources, including handbooks, training courses and guides to support the mentoring journey. The nonprofits that serve the youth segment have their own training programmes, which provide further structure and substance to the mentoring effort.

Interactions between the mentors and the beneficiaries can be face-to-face or virtual in nature, and may take the form of internships and workplace mentoring. MWM also encourages activities like STEM events, summer camps and career counselling.

Sizeable contribution
As a company that has many successes to its name in the area of information technology and an enduring commitment to social uplift, TCS was quick to ally itself with the cause of encouraging women to take up STEM studies and careers. The company is one of the largest employers of women in the private sector globally, with more than 119,000 female employees, a number that has grown tenfold over a decade.

TCS began its commitment by making an initial pledge in 2014 to have 15,000 mentoring relationships in place. This was done by organising internal talent management programmes for women and through community outreach initiatives for girls, especially from ethnic minorities. Over the following nearly three years, TCS fulfilled and exceeded its pledge, having nurtured in excess of 55,000 mentoring relationships. Surya Kant, president, TCS North America, UK and Europe, serves as the executive sponsor for this initiative.

“We were keen to use our technology and our intellectual, human and financial capital to address the challenges of gender, ethnic and wage equities,” says Mr Ganapathy. “Our goal was to lead by example, build a coalition with a wide variety of partners, identify best practices in mentoring and, ultimately, move the needle in a sustainable manner.”

A technology platform — — built pro-bono by TCS is a key component of this ambitious quest to bring in greater gender diversity in the STEM sphere. The platform currently serves 45 companies, 60 youth-serving partners and 39 American states, linking resources from the supply side with demand.

“A company can propose its mentors to nonprofits, prioritising the regions and specific locations where the mentors are present,” says Mr Ganapathy. “Conversely, a national nonprofit partner can display the mentoring needs for their regional and local affiliates by zip code across the country. This ‘mentoring marketplace’ and scaffolding provided by the tech platform results in the matching of company resources to the needs of our nonprofit partners.”

Measuring progress
The TCS platform measures progress registered against the pledges made by capturing the mentoring metrics of the companies and nonprofit partners. The platform also hosts the individual pages of the state teams, which can build their own coalitions and talk about their successes.

Additionally, TCS has dedicated a technology team that regularly updates the functionalities of the platform. This has helped capture over a million pledges, matching corporations with youth-serving organisations, providing state- and city-level coalitions a communication platform, and enabling partners to report the results they have achieved.

TCS published a white paper, Women in STEM: realising the potential, in 2014, in partnership with STEMconnector. Two years later, it hosted a roundtable of industry partners to identify ‘corporate best practices in mentoring’.

In order to be gender inclusive, TCS invites men and women to sign up as mentors. The company encourages mentoring relationships internally through iConnect (a career management platform), iNSPIRE (a programme for high-potential employees), and external mentoring through TCS goIT and STEM Career Accelerator.

Forging strong mentoring relationships can only help so much, however. Since the problem exists at a deeper level, more concrete steps are needed to remove the structural, emotional and social barriers that women face in taking up a STEM education and careers. Says Mr Ganapathy: “Gender stereotypes need to be addressed in the curriculum, lessons and pedagogy, and in organisational culture and policies to break the perception that STEM jobs are less accommodative towards women.”

To make this happen, the MWM movement will have to ensure that parents and guardians are able to appreciate the advantages that a STEM education and career would bring to their daughters. More importantly, it will need to establish a diverse set of role models, both men and women, who can inspire and sponsor young women while working to counter any glass ceilings that may exist within their organisations.

Cultural shift
The results of the initiative are already being felt. MWM has focused national attention on issues of gender, ethnic and wage equities. “The resultant shift in the mindset and culture will lead to policy and process changes within organisations,” adds Mr Ganapathy.

Already, companies are approaching mentoring as a long-term activity attuned towards women. Meanwhile, having observed the benefits to be gained from greater gender diversity — including improvements in brand image, employer value proposition, employee retention and engagement — companies are trying hard to usher in change within their ranks.

Many of these companies have tied up with external programmes to give their women employees the push they need. Nonprofits are now working with industry leaders to fine-tune the engagement models that support high-impact mentoring.

While a lot has been accomplished, much remains to be done in terms of understanding gender stereotypes and tackling unconscious biases that exist at individual, social and organisational levels. Initiatives such as MWM, involving government institutions as well as companies in increasing workforce diversity, will go a long way in enabling enterprises to benefit from the talent and capabilities of women.

Only good can emerge — for communities, countries and the world as a whole — from recognising the full range of the contribution made by women. It’s time for ‘anonymous’ to get her rightful due.

This article was first published in the January - March 2017 issue of Tata Review. Read the ebook here