Since I was a female engineer over thirty years ago, I’ve seen quite a bit of change for women in technology. Still, both then and now, a common complaint is about how women are held back by lack of mentors. Now, being on the other side of the desk, I can see one possible reason why.

I started working as an engineer in my early twenties and, coincidentally, got divorced shortly thereafter. So, here I was, a young, single woman working almost exclusively with older men. Some, such as the lead engineers on the projects I worked on, tended to be around ten years older than me, while the men in upper management were usually two or three times my age.

If one of them offered to have lunch with me, stayed after a meeting to give a more in-depth answer to a question I had or invited me to have a drink after work with the group, there was always that little bit of wondering if they had some other motive in mind.

As I got MUCH older, I didn’t have to worry so much that the guy telling me about the cool macro he did to compute power analysis for mixed models was interested in anything other than my opinion. Maybe I am naive, not being very experienced in the affair-having business, but I suspect that those types are more likely to be hitting on people my daughters’ age than mine.

Recently, though, I’ve had a few experiences that made me understand better how the male managers might have sometimes felt around people like me. Often, when I see a young person giving a presentation or struggling with a technical problem, I’ll try to help. My own three older daughters are aged 25 to 29, so I tend to associate young people with them, and I would hope people in their fields would lend them a hand as well.

I try to encourage doctoral students to present, publish and apply for positions that they may see as a stretch but I think they can manage. When I was their age, I was fortunate to get that kind of mentoring and I try to give back.

Every now and then, I get a bit of a strange look from young men, like, “What’s in it for you?”

Maybe they’ve been watching that TV show Cougarville, too much. I don’t know, but it’s not just my imagination. A colleague told me when she offered to help out a younger, female colleague the young woman hinted that she thought it bordered on sexual harassment. My colleague responded in a rather explicit manner that detailed her sexual proclivities not involving women.

My point, which you have certainly by now despaired of me having, is that, partly, the reluctance for men to act as mentors to women is not sexism but rather a perfectly understandable desire not to be perceived as a creep or a dirty old man.

I have no answer for that, other than to say I get it now.

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