Women Who Work Together: The Importance Of Female Mentorship In STEM

Women pursuing careers in STEM fields often struggle to find support in the male-dominated environments. However, a female mentor can change everything.

A woman teaches female high school students in a lab

The fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) come from long histories of male exclusivity and remain male-dominated to this day. Women who pursue careers in these fields often face sexism, misogyny, and even harassment that can compel them to abandon their dreams for less hostile environments.

Nilanjana Dasgupta, a professor of social psychology at University of Massachusetts in Amherst, told The Atlantic she believes there's a simple way to change all of that. Of course, it begins with women.

In a two-year-long study focused on female engineering undergraduates, Dasgupta and her colleague, Tara Dennehy, found compelling evidence to show that having a female mentor vastly improves a woman's chances of continuing her engineering studies. Female students who were able to navigate their engineering programs under the guidance of a female mentor were less likely to drop out of classes and were able to maintain the self-confidence and motivation needed to push forward down their career path. 

Between 2011 and 2015, Dasgupta and Dennehy gathered 150 undergraduate women in Amherst's engineering department with the understanding that they would be surveyed intermittently over the next few years. They then paired the students with senior engineering students who excelled in their field and required the mentors to meet with their mentees once a month. The idea was for them to not only make themselves available to assist with any subject questions their mentee might have, but also to help them adapt to the culture of the school and the engineering program in general. Some of the undergraduate students were assigned to female mentors, some to males, and some were given no mentor at all, with telling results.

When Dasgupta and Dennehy touched base with the undergraduate students a year later, they found marked differences in the attitudes of the women who had been mentored by other women and the women who had been mentored by men or who had worked alone. By evaluating the pairs, the researchers discovered that the female mentors were what they called "social vaccines;" they helped the younger students mentally and emotionally prepare for the harsh realities of a field filled with negative stereotypes against them. 

Women mentored by women were self-confident and felt visible to their male peers in terms of their academic accomplishments. At the end of their first year, all were still in the engineering program.

In contrast, when Dasgupta and Dennehy reconnected with the students who had been mentored by males, 18 percent had dropped out; of the women who had been assigned no mentor at all, 11 percent had decided to leave the engineering field.

“It’s not that having a female mentor increased belonging or confidence — it just preserved it,” Dasgupta explained to The Atlantic. 

The mentor's and mentee's shared experience as women in engineering helped to create an important bond that guided the undergraduate student through challenges and inspired them to continue their passion in spite of difficulties. Instead of succumbing to anxiety and doubt like their mentor-less and male-mentored peers, these women kept trying simply because they regularly saw proof that there was a reason to.

“And this study isn’t just about women,” Radhika Nagpal, a professor in Computer Science at Harvard University, told The Atlantic. “It’s about all the groups who have been historically and legally excluded, and are now slowly entering a world from which their members were barred. There’s a famous saying: You can’t be what you can’t see.”

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