The Power of Gender Peer Mentors

Two women working together

A new study in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences reveals that 100% of first-year women engineering students who had women peer mentors remained in the engineering program for the second year.

This time frame is crucial because women STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) students typically decide at the end of their first year if they will change majors or remain in STEM.

Why is it so important for women (not just students in STEM, but women in general) to have gender peer mentors?

A STEM Boost

According to De Angela L. Duff, co-director and industry associate professor of Integrated Digital Media at NYU School of Engineering, “Women peer mentors help mentees to identify faculty, staff, and student allies in and outside of the classroom who can help them reach their educational and/or career goals.”

Duff says women peer mentors can also achieve a deeper level of connection as they share their own experiences and challenges. “In addition, they are able to share campus resources and services that are particularly beneficial to females.”

And, as a result of this level of connectedness, she believes mentees develop confidence when communicating with fellow students, faculty, alumni, and employers. “Through women peer mentorship, mentees are able to seek out and utilize the resources and services they need in order to succeed,” Duff explains.

“In Seth Godin’s book, Tribes, he discusses how human beings want connection and need to belong to a group or groups of like-minded people,” Duff says. “In other words, they need to find their tribe.”

According to the National Science Board, women are awarded over half of the bachelor’s degrees in the biological sciences. However, they only receive 17.9% of computer science degrees, 19.3% of engineering degrees, and 39% of degrees in the physical sciences.

“Being a female in an engineering school can be incredibly isolating without finding community,” Duff says. “Women peer mentorship – or Womentorship as we call it at NYU Tandon – is essential for this community building.”

By integrating women students within the many dynamics of an engineering school, Duff says schools are more likely to retain these students. “Long-term, women peer mentorship can only lead to a positive shift in the imbalanced, gender ratios of engineering.”

Mentoring Advantages in Other Areas

However, the positives of mentorship are not limited to engineering and other STEM fields. “For example, many black students seek me out for advice or as a sounding board when they are not even in my program,” Duff explains. “Since there are not many full-time, black professors at NYU, students from other programs within my school and other NYU schools (non-engineering students) reach out to me all of the time.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Jacqueline Huntoon, PhD, provost – and also a professor of geology – at Michigan Technological University. “I think that all students, not just women, and not just those in STEM, need mentors,” Huntoon says. “If you look like and think like the majority of your professors and classmates, it will be easy for you to find a mentor that you feel comfortable with.”

But, she believes that students in a minority group as a result of their gender, race, country of origin, etc., might need to put forth the extra effort to find the right mentor. “A good mentor is someone who can understand what you want and need and is willing to help you figure out how to achieve your goals,” Huntoon explains. “Mentors for women in STEM do not have to be women in STEM themselves – in fact, some of the best mentors I’ve ever had have been men, and not all of them have been scientists or engineers.”

Vernice “FlyGirl” Armour, was America’s first African American female combat pilot and served two tours in Iraq with the Marines. Armour is a huge advocate of STEM and STEAM programs and travelled the country this past summer with the Office Depot Foundation National Backpack Program, speaking at various events and encouraging kids to participate in STEM and STEAM.

Armour believes that mentors are vitally important. “They can help work through issues, and as a student getting ready to move into the workforce, learning from someone who’s been there, done that, can have a tremendous impact.”

For students in college, she says a mentor can help them create a career roadmap or what she calls a “flight plan.”

However, she doesn’t recommend picking a mentor based on gender. “Pick a mentor based on who they are – and all mentors won’t look like you – but, same-gender mentors may be able to give insight into specific gender issues.”

And, she believes that women need mentors and sponsors. “They need more than just advice and encouragement, they need someone with influence/capital who can provide opportunities, not just good guidance.” As for college students, she thinks that many young women might think it is too early to have a sponsor. “But that is exactly the person who has the ability to help you land that first or dream job,” Armour concludes.

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