Female Mentorship Helps Keep Women in STEM

by Mia Mercado

Gender disparity in the workplace is apparent across most every field. It’s no secret that female representation is especially lacking in leadership roles and jobs related to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). However, a new study has a promising solution for keeping more women in the STEM field: woman-to-woman mentorship.

The study starts where many women’s pursuit of STEM careers ends: in college. Currently, women drop of out STEM subjects at a higher rate than men. Pinpointing the cause of this low retention rate isn’t easy. It’s likely in part due to societal expectations of women and the jobs they are “more suited” for. Perhaps it’s in part because of the sexual harassment women in tech face, with a recent survey finding 60 percent of women say they’ve been sexually harassed at work. It can certainly be attributed to the lack of current female role models present in these field. As they say, you can’t be what you can’t see. Thus, the cycle of underrepresentation continues.

This new study from the University of Massachusetts works specifically to address that last problem. Two researchers, Tara C. Dennehya and Nilanjana Dasguptaa, studied 150 freshmen women studying engineering. (The lack of women, even among STEM fields, particularly standing out in engineering.) To gauge the impact of women role models, students were either assigned male mentors, female mentor, or no mentor. If assigned one, students met with their mentors once a month.

At the end of their freshman year, 11 percent of students without mentors had switched majors or dropped out of school entirely. The same was true of 18 percent of the students who has male mentorship. The number of students with female mentors who dropped out of school or engineering? Zero.

Once more for good measure: At the end of the year, all of the female students who received female mentorship were still pursuing engineering.

As authors Dennehya and Dasguptaa write in their study, “Female mentors promoted aspirations to pursue engineering careers by protecting women’s belonging and confidence.” Essentially, being reassured that they belonged in the field is what helped keep these female engineering studies. Dennehya and Dasguptaa continue, “Greater belonging and confidence were also associated with more engineering retention.”

If you needed another reason why representation matters, this study just gave you a scientific one. Though the sample size is admittedly small, the results of this research are significant in understanding how we can encourage more women to pursue STEM jobs. Gender disparity is a current reality, but it doesn’t have to be our future. The same is true of representation among people of color, people from low-income backgrounds, or any other demographic that is disproportionately underrepresented in certain academic and career fields. This study shows people can be what they see, but they do have to see it first.