Peer Mentoring in College Increases Retention of Women in Engineering

By Roberta Attanasio, Forever Leaders Editor

Scientific discoveries and their many applications are critical to the American economy.  Thus, public debate on how to develop an increasing robust workforce in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields continues unabated.  Notably, the under-representation of women in STEM is attracting increasing attention, and considerable efforts are underway to understand not only why so few women choose STEM fields in college, but also why so many of these few women either do not pursue their chosen field of studies or leave their STEM careers after they graduate and enter the workforce.

Women’s level of participation in STEM fields varies—it is highest in psychology, where women account for 70% or more of the graduates at each degree level. Women’s participation is also relatively high in biosciences and social sciences (except for economics).  The proportion of women is lowest in engineering, computer sciences, and physics.  Not surprisingly, different groups of scientists are carrying out studies to identify strategies that can be used to increase the number of women in STEM.  The most recent study (Female peer mentors early in college increase women’s positive academic experiences and retention in engineering) focuses on women in engineering, a field with extremely low women representation.  About 20 percent of undergraduate engineering degrees are awarded to women, and only 13 percent of the engineering workforce is female.

What causes the low representation of women in engineering?  A variety of factors contribute to it, including lack of mentorship for women in the field; feelings of isolation and not belonging; lack of confidence; and the challenges of maintaining a balance between work and family life.

For the study, the scientists had 150 female engineering students meet with advanced peer female or male mentors, or no mentors at all, once a month for an academic year.  They surveyed the students’ experiences three times in the first year and once again a year later.  In general, survey responses and retention data showed that female mentors positively influenced students’ feelings of confidence and belonging, as well as their desire to continue in engineering as a career.  However, male mentors had no such effect.  Remarkably, at the end of the first college year, 100 percent of women students mentored by advanced female peers were still in engineering majors.

The scientists point out that while female peer mentors had significantly more desirable effects on first-year women in engineering, “this does not mean male mentors are unimportant.  We expect that female mentors’ support will become less critical as women move beyond college transition, at which point male and female mentors may become equally effective.”  In addition, they point out that male faculty who are scientists and engineers play important roles as advisors and career sponsors in women’s careers.

The study results support the Stereotype Inoculation Model, which predicts that like a vaccine that protects against harmful microorganisms, exposure to successful own-group peers serves as a “social vaccine” to protects one against noxious stereotypes.  This is especially effective during developmental transitions—life stages in which individuals usually experience self-doubt and uncertainty.

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12 comments

  1. This article was really informing about issues that I have no idea happened in the field of engineering. This article also said something that caught my attention which was how having a girl mentor in engineering really helped the girls in that field stay in that area! Like me, for example, I can relate, my science field is really competitive, and there are a lot of guys who get accepted, and not many girls because it is not a girly field, but ever since I have found my mentor who does the same thing as me I began to love my track more, and not over think about anything. She taught me that it is hard for a girl to be in this field, but that is not a reason to quit. This is why I understand why the girls in the study that this article talked about because it happened to me! So I hope girls can find themselves someone in their field that they can look up to because it is worth it.

    • I agree with you and the article. Getting into upper-level classes, most females students are faced with a lot of self-doubts especially in majors such as Chemistry, Physics, and computer science because there are people that look less like them. It’s incredible how much of an effect having a female mentor has on retention rates of women in science. This does not surprise me though, as you have stated finding a female mentor has made you love the track that you are on.I feel the same way upon finding, my mentor. It has also pushed me to pursue more opportunities that I may not have recognized initially as good for my career path. The benefits of having a female mentor who has traveled down the same path and has reached success in their career provides a bit of hope. It’s also interesting to note the as student progress in their fields the emphasis on whether a mentor is female or male become unimportant. I think this might be because female students have enough confidence in themselves and seek mentors for career advancements at this stage.

  2. I found the corrolation this article showed between peer mentoring and retention in the engineering feild to be quite compeling. It made me realize that if every female freshman intrested in engineering could be paired up with a quality mentor, the gab of women in STEM would most certainly decrease. There were some intresting reasons suggested as to why women are under represented in this field. I do not disagree with the lack of mentorship, juggling family life, feeling issolated and lack of confidence as prime contributers to this issue. Perhaps some men may argue that the real reason is due to things like a lack of talent in women, sexist discrimination and a lack of intrest exhibited by women toward the STEM field. I would like to debunk these myths that may circulat amongst some men. To begin, i believe that every person despite gender is capable of achieving highly in math science and alike. It may take extra effort or application on a case by case basis, but it is still very much so reachable. In regards to sexist discrimination, some men may think women shy away from egineering because they know that women are going to be subjected to discrimination simply because they are female. This epedemic needs to be brought to light so that women can receive justice. Once justice is reached and ensured, i feel certain that more women will venture in to engineering. Also, it will allow this defense that men give for dominating the field to be put to rest. Lastly, i do think there may potentially be a bit of truth in the final reason brought forth by men of why women are not a s abundant in engineering. I know i personally tend to have over all different interests then most men i am familiar with. however, ths is only to be taken lightly as an explanation because there are many women that have similar intrests as men do. All in all, a greater effort should be put forth to pair girls with mentors in the engineering field.

  3. I fully agree with the work being done to give female engineering students mentors that they can relate to. I feel that it is something most fields should take when they realize that they have vast differences between male and females in them. Representation matters and by seeing someone these young women can relate to more personally it only makes sense for them to be more invested in their fields. It’s difficult to be the breakthrough woman in a field and realize you’re basically alone with men who may or may not understand the hardships you had to deal with as a woman. This is a great step to help bridge the gap of women in STEM programs and I hope to see it implemented in more fields than just engineering. Finding a good mentor is so important and finding one that is relatable at the beginning of your college career helps a lot in staying in that field.

  4. This article resonated with me because my mentor inspired me to do better and believe in myself academically. When I started primary school in states, the teachers placed me in this class that I did not belong in because they thought that I had a learning disability. When I was put into that class that experience, stayed with and made me question my intelligence; but when I met my mentor Arati Sahoo, she helped me to have more confidence in my academic capabilities. Arati Sahoo is a senior biological programmer at the CDC. Although my major has nothing to do with coding, she inspires because of her lifestyle, kindness, and love she has for me. She has even offered to help me with some of the math homework in the past. After I met Arati my grades in class improved drastically. She has taught me that it’s not essential to be the smartest, what truly matters is if I can work the hardest and get the job done.

  5. As a minority female in Computer Science, this article resonated with me. College is a transitional period that requires a certain degree of guidance to be successful. This semester through the assistance of this WomenLead course, I acquired a female mentor, and I am grateful for her invaluable mentorship as I navigate and transition from college to the professional arena. The undisputed significant component of being female and being mentored by a female is the aspect of relatability. Presently, our interactions are informative, empowering, judgment-free, and most importantly, understanding because some elements of my story are similar to my mentor’s story. Perhaps, as the article states, after college, gender-specific mentorship will not matter but, to date, I am not certain I would agree.

    • I think it is great that you found a computer science mentor from WomenLead. I wanted to suggest the implementation of a cohort program for women in fields that are male dominated. It would be similar to the FLCs (freshman learning community) currently in place at georgia state, but cohorts are also implemented at grad schools. The women will be placed into groups of four to six and take the same courses together. They will be able to support one another and know that they are not alone. I’m not aware of the semantics of the idea, but it is one to consider to maintain the fecundity of women in computer science.

  6. After reading the comments and the article I have to ask: Do women want to be treated the same as men or different than men? Women want the same rights as men but then also want special circumstances regarding pregnancy, maternal leave, periods, accommodations with having children. Do women want to be compared to men on the same intellectual, physical, or emotional level? Because in many ways-psychologically and biologically-females are different from men. If you compare the strongest woman to the strongest man in the world-the man will be stronger. If you compare an average strength woman to an average strength man- 9 times out of 10, the man is stronger. Females are more emotional as well. Lean in and Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman both discuss extensively how females take too much to heart or read too much into a simple sentence or email. There is a whole section in PLMWLM where the author says that females can’t be seen crying in the workplace-at anytime no matter what. You can’t expect to be treated equally as a man when it comes to an emotional matter and then two months later expect to be treated differently than a man because of an emotional matter (pregnancy, firing, children, divorce).

  7. I understand what Amrina is trying to say that women can’t expect to be differently from men because of emotions, however I think that due to a lack of belonging and lack of confidence should be addressed separately from men. It is because of men and bias that women feel this was and leave the workforce. If it were addressed as a specific issue and there was a solution proposed, I believe many more women would continue on a STEM career path. Psychologically, feelings of isolation are among the most powerful, and connection is seen as a basic human need. Maybe women are drawn to social sciences because they have the education, and it is “people based,” so they feel more worthy. More effort should be put into women mentorship in college. I think more women would be likely to stay in STEM if they form a bond with other women in those fields. Also, male dominated companies/industries should make a conscious effort to bring more women into their workforce.

  8. The most profound thing that stuck out in this article to me was the common factor between all of the STEM fields that women have yet to break into to. Between engineering, physics, and computer science, the apparent link is math. Math is a field that traditionally has been thought of as more male than female and clearly, that is holding true into college and career. So there are two explanations that come to mind, either biologically boys are better at math or girls are just less confident about math. I know that a lot of people really love biological explanations for differences between males and females. Purely my own opinion, I think a role in this thinking is the difference between male and female body type as well as traditional mindsets such as many religions’ teachings that males and females have different roles (controversial I know). However, research suggests that the more likely reason is that girls are less confident about math instead of actually performing any worse. One could also think this is biological because women are “programmed” to be less confident than men. However, if that was the case, why are we dominating the psychology and bioscience field. I think that programs such as mentoring programs are amazing and should even start at younger ages. I am in the school of thought that the brains of men and women are not as different as previously thought (with research to back up this claim). Therefore, I think that attitudes are very moldable and that women could easily gain traction in these STEM fields if they could gather the confidence to see that they are just as good as any man. (I recognize that this post has a lot of my own opinion in it and I am very open to other people’s thoughts and ideas.)

  9. People are naturally drawn to those who are like then. That being said, I am not surprised the female engineering students that were given female mentors stayed in their majors. Having a mentor that I can relate to you on more than just engineering probably had a huge impact on the students. These female engineering students are still trying to grow as people as well as scientist. Having a mentor that knows what it was like to be a woman in a male-dominated field can be inspiring and lead young engineers to believe it is possible to be a successful female engineer. Universities should put in place a female mentoring program for majors that lack women representatives; this would increase awareness of these majors and help support those already in the major.

  10. Just as many have mentioned before, strong mentorship in college helped increase the retention rate of women in engineering. I believe female mentors have more impact than male mentors because it is much easier to go to a female mentor and discussed on gender issues and equality without being judged. Male mentors can’t necessarily empathize with the female mentees and sometimes can’t give the best advice to them. Thus, having female mentorships could inspire and encourage women to stay in these high demand engineering field. That’s why many people said the key to success and growth is to surround yourself with the people that believe in you and push you to be the best that you can be, so that you may achieve your dreams. With that I want to end with a quote from an African proverb: “If you wanna go fast, go alone. If you wanna go far, go together.”

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