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Women mentorship in STEM

| Tuesday, September 19, 2017

To say that there is a gender discrepancy in STEM is nothing new. According to the NSF, women make up only 29 percent of the STEM workforce, and earn less than half of the bachelor’s awarded in almost all STEM fields. The situation is even more disparate for minority women, who in 2015 earned 3.1 percent of the bachelor’s awarded in mechanical engineering, 6.5 percent of physical sciences and 9.7 percent of biological sciences. While the extent of this problem has become nearly common knowledge, its potential solutions are not so easily discussed.

Perhaps that’s because the reasons behind this gender gap are not clear-cut. Implicit biases and explicit discrimination occur on every college campus, and the number of women in STEM reflect both. Barriers to entry form at a young age, as video games marketed overwhelmingly towards boys discourage female computer scientists, and the stereotype that men are better at math does not encourage female engineers. Yet these problems of cultural bias and skewed perceptions are intangible ones — so how do we form tangible solutions?

We should start with mentorship. It’s a tried-and-true method for almost every field; the very concept of the university began with mentorship, with young minds being led by older ones. And when it comes to women in STEM, there is strong recent research that older women scientists mentoring younger ones is a sure-fire way to increase retention rates.

A recent, comprehensive study out of University of Massachusetts–Amherst showed how effective female mentorship can be. Professor of psychology Nilanjana Dasgupta assigned female engineering majors a male or female mentor who was a high-performing senior in their major, or no mentor at all. After surveying the groups for a year, Dasgupta found that students with female mentors felt more confident about their engineering skills and more accepted in their department. While 11 percent of mentor-less students had changed major by the end of the year, all of the students with female mentors stayed. Importantly, the grades between the groups did not vary significantly, indicating that the women’s decisions to stay in STEM were motivated less by actual ability and more by feelings of confidence and acceptance.

Scientists are taking note. Initiatives like Million Women Mentors and the National Girls Collaborative Project are working to connect mentees to mentors from around the country. Programs that support upperclassmen mentorship of underclassmen are becoming commonplace at universities. Notre Dame has taken some impressive strides in this area, as the majority of our STEM departments involve some sort of mentoring club or system — speaking from experience, biology’s Uplift program facilitates small group mentoring, and hosts events where underclassmen can ask upperclassmen about things like classes and careers. Yet the research is showing that women need to be mentored by women, a call that Notre Dame’s chapter of AWIS (Association for Women in Science) is answering well. AWIS pairs undergraduate STEM women with female STEM graduate students, a direct parallel to Dasgupta’s findings (note: AWIS is now accepting applications, so if you’re interested check them out.)

The point of female mentorship in STEM is to show future scientists and engineers that there is a place for women in these fields. Although it can seem upsetting that something as simple as this needs to be said, it is encouraging in that it will only get better. The more we encourage women to enter STEM fields, the more gender-balanced those fields will become — and as women in STEM becomes normalized, our need for special recruitment techniques will diminish. Hopefully there will come a day when mentorship for women in STEM is so commonplace that specific programming will no longer need to exist — but for the time being, these programs should do nothing but expand.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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