Why Every IT Woman Can Benefit From a Peer Network

Finding a group you identify with can lead to immeasurable career and personal gain.

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3. Affinity groups. These types of networks are made up of people at your company who share a common interest, not necessarily the same type of job. When I was vice president of IT and CIO at Cummins, I led a group that included all the women from the company -- executives, managers, programmers, human resources professionals, marketers and secretaries. I had the opportunity to connect with women I might never have met in the course of my job as an executive.

Recently, I was reconnected with a marketing and HR employee at Cummins whom I'd met in the affinity group, and thanks to her, we are helping to develop a science camp co-sponsored by Purdue University and Cummins. Affinity groups also allow women who don't have management roles to take on more responsibility in the organization. These groups can be especially beneficial to those looking to move into a different assignment in the company or perhaps a different career. Even if you have no intention of leaving your job, affinity groups make it easier to make contacts on the inside to share ideas and get things done.

4. One-on-one mentoring. Even though a mentoring relationship isn't really a peer network, I would highly recommend having a mentor or being a mentor. Each is rewarding in its own way, both personally and professionally. I've served as a mentor to both men and women through the years -- in formal and informal capacities -- and am still contacted by young people seeking career advice. In fact, one of the reasons I decided to make the career move to academia was to have the chance to work closer with, and offer my insights to, young people.

Oddly enough, although I've had several mentors, none has been a woman. One of the most significant was a male high school teacher who taught a computer class. I worked for him grading papers (he was legally blind). He had worked at IBM in the 1950s and was always talking about how computer careers were rewarding and lucrative. He convinced me that computers would be a good career for me. That led me to reject my guidance counselor's advice to go to vocational school, and instead I applied to college. He even helped me with the application and financial aid process. Without him, I wouldn't be where I am today.

Although many women in IT -- especially in the upper ranks -- have very little spare time, I've found that peer networking is worth the time you invest in it. I've always felt that I get much more out of networking groups than I put in.

My advice as a former CIO is simple: Seek out groups, and if you don't find one you like, start one of your own. Being part of a peer networking group might be the best career move you ever make.

Farnsley, formerly vice president of IT and CIO at Cummins Inc., is a visiting professor in the Department of Computer and Information Technology at Purdue University. She was named one of Computerworld's Premier 100 IT Leaders for 2008. She can be reached at gfarnsley@purdue.edu.

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Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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