There’s no question that there have been fewer women in data analytics and engineering leadership than there have been men. In certain industries it can be particularly pronounced. The situation has improved somewhat over the past decade, with early proactive programs like Girls Who Code and She Can Code enabling the kind of training and storytelling that helps young women to see themselves in these roles, but still work remains to be done.

So where should women start if they want to encourage new data leaders or if they aspire to become one themselves? Here are a few strategies to consider to help foster an environment that builds the next generation of women leaders in data.

  1. Launch a mentorship program. Mentorship programs are often successful because the easiest way for anyone to aspire to a goal is to see someone who looks like them doing it. Women-to-women mentorship goes a long way because it helps people put themselves in their mentor’s shoes, hear about similar struggles that they’ve come to, and figure out solutions for each other. It’s a powerful tool to gather a community and ensure that everyone has a good network to go to rather than one or two close coworkers.
  2. Look seriously at sponsorship. Moving from mentorship to sponsorship is another great accelerator for women in data roles. I think of mentorship as overall guidance and support, while sponsorship is about using your executive influence to advocate for the person or persons you’re sponsoring and take them into organizational settings they may not have seen otherwise. When someone feels like they have a sponsor who is putting their reputation on the line because they believe in them, they are that much more motivated to pull out their best performance and deliver. One of the most fulfilling things I've seen is when this comes full circle where that individual then does it for others. 
  3. Get corporate endorsement. Mentorship and sponsorship programs are terrific ways to help women evolve in their data and analytics careers, but they benefit significantly from corporate – and especially senior management – sponsorship. When senior-level sponsors highlight the need for programs with a specific goal of advancing women in data roles, these programs tend to produce better results.
  4. Address imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is not exclusive to women, but it feels more prevalent among them. Imposter syndrome can feel like a constant battle, and depending on your job environment, it can rear its ugly head anytime. When I started at Meta I’d never worked in a company so large but besides the pure magnitude I found the level of people and talent on the teams intimidating. In the beginning I wondered what I was doing there, but I kept reminding myself the type of experience I bring to any job is different from anyone else. The beauty of a diverse workplace culture is that everyone provides their own unique experiences, which if cultivated, can spawn creativity and innovation to build something great together.  The first thing that helped me overcome imposter syndrome was realizing that so many others had it. Talking openly about it with others made it that much less daunting.  Other key recommendations I share with women experiencing imposter syndrome are to regularly remind yourself what you bring to the table, create your ladder by reframing success to celebrate the small wins, find the allies that build you up and do the same for others, and allow yourself to learn. Which brings me to… 
  5. Allow yourself to learn. Part of overcoming perfectionism is acknowledging it and allowing yourself to fail to learn. Feeling like you have a huge hill to climb without making a single mistake only hinders you from further success down the road because you haven’t allowed yourself to make those mistakes and learn from them overall. I tell women to acknowledge their competence but also appreciate what others may do better and come with curiosity to learn from them. People on your team may be more educated or experienced, for example, but you may be a better manager, know how to lead a team, and can successfully motivate top performance. If you come to your work from a place of humility and learning to better yourself and others, the self-doubting voices start to get quieter over time. 

Reaching out, giving back
If you’re a woman leader in data and analytics who wants to mentor, look for groups within your department or company. If they don’t exist, back to point #1, start one. Be the change agent by communicating your willingness to be a mentor or a sponsor, including other women you might want to help evolve their careers. Set goals for what your mentoring could do. Nurture other people to become mentors as well. 

If you’re an aspiring data leader, identify who you want to work with and why. The best inquiries I get from people are clear and direct: I sought you out because of X, Y and Z reasons, and this is what I'm looking for. This specificity helps the mentor decide whether they really can provide good guidance while showing them that you have real focus. Although you can approach them blind, it’s probably easier to look at your network, see if someone is connected to that person, and get a warm introduction. 

Above all, be genuine and get to know the person. People can sense when an interest in mentorship is real. The more you get connected, the more effectively you’ll be advancing opportunities by gaining perspectives you wouldn’t have otherwise – for yourself today, but eventually for other women looking to advance their careers in data down the road as well.