When Microsoft software development engineer Dr. Jenna Butler first started exploring computer science, she did not expect it to reroute her career path. Her passion was studying cancer, but she didn’t see how computers could connect to that pursuit.

While doing her undergraduate degree in biochemistry, Butler took a linear algebra class and the professor pointed out that she could combine her aptitude for computer science with her passion for cancer research.

“It was really this teacher who helped me figure out that I could use computing to make a difference in the field of cancer research,” says Butler, who recently completed her PhD in bioinformatics, using computer simulations to study the efficacy of cancer drug treatments.

“I think it’s important that women have access to positive role models who can debunk these misconceptions.”

The professional impact of this type of input and guidance is one of the reasons Butler says that mentorship matters, particularly for women in the technology sector.

Bridging the gender gap

Canadian women represent almost half of the overall Canadian workforce, but only a quarter of the nation’s advanced technology sector — a traditionally male-dominated industry.

Going through the computer science program, Butler noticed differences in how men and women approached the field. “Men programmers have different work styles than women. If we try to fit into the traditional mold, we burn out, and if we don’t, we may look less committed,” she says, “and this can have a negative impact on our career progression.”

Speaking with other women in technology, she was able to find those who could relate to these challenges and shared her concerns about issues like work-life balance and starting a family. They were also willing to impart some words of wisdom to guide Jenna as she balanced the competing requirements of family and career.

Gaming company COO Claudette Critchley says that the need to work 24/7 and the idea that the profession requires endless solitary hours at a computer are common misconceptions about working in computer science.

“For women going into tech, there seem to be a lot of negative messages, some of which are not necessarily true,” she says. “I think it’s important that women have access to positive role models who can debunk these misconceptions.”

Mentorship at work

A 2014 survey by the Canadian Women’s Foundation found that while only half of Canadian women had a positive mentor in their youth, 83 percent believe they are now more confident because of it.

For Butler, female mentors helped her realize what she needed from her job and how she could do it well. “Having females to come alongside you, to stand up for you, higher-level people that can assist you in that process, is really important,” she says.

According to an international study, 80 percent of successful women have been mentored throughout their careers, usually by more than one person. Now, as role models themselves, both Butler and Critchley hope that they can inspire other women to enter this field. “Go for it and join the new generation of women in computing,” says Butler. “At the very least, the skills that you gain in computer science will complement whatever role you end up having in the future. At the most, you might be like me and find the career that you love.”