Mentors Help Bridge the Gender Gap in Engineering

At school and at work, women with mentors are more likely to succeed

3 min read
Mentors Help Bridge the Gender Gap in Engineering
Photo: Ezra Bailey/Getty Images

During Estefania Ortiz’s first internship as a freshman computer science major, the Stanford University student felt frustrated, insecure, and unsuccessful.

But when she sought a mentor’s advice three-quarters of the way through her internship, she received valuable guidance on what to expect and how to salvage the experience. Managers are not like teachers, her mentor taught her, and she shouldn’t expect encouragement and regular feedback.

“This mentor was saying, ‘Pick your battles. Focus on networking.’ Basically, she gave me a strategy to end on a good note,” says Ortiz, who begins her senior year this fall. “That conversation with my mentor changed my whole course.”

It’s been widely known for decades that women in STEM fields switch majors away from science, technology, engineering, and mathematics at higher rates than their male counterparts. And this pattern continues after graduation—even for those who attain master’s and doctorate degrees. But research shows that having mentors—both peer mentors and more senior mentors—reduces the number of women who leave engineering and increases job satisfaction for those women who stay.

“The feelings of competence and efficacy are stronger when you are less isolated and feel more confident in your job performance,” says Naomi C. Chesler, a biomedical engineer who has studied gender disparities in engineering education for two decades.

Women who enter college confident and enthusiastic can face a rude awakening when encountering professors who undervalue their contributions and a culture geared more toward competition than collaboration and cooperation. Kimberly Bryant, an electrical engineer and founder of Black Girls Code, agrees, saying mentors have been pivotal to her career since her first year in college. Her first mentor, who was a couple of years ahead of her with the same major at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, advised her on which classes to take and how to select an advisor. As Bryant was one of the few female electrical engineering students, her mentor also helped her feel less alone.

Later, while rapidly rising in her career at Pfizer, Bryant was recruited to join an all-white-male team of directors. After encountering friction from other directors in staff meetings, she kept silent. The man who had recruited her pulled her aside, told her he wanted her perspective, and encouraged her to speak up. Having that mentor in her corner helped her share her insights, she says, even when facing pushback from other colleagues.

Women who have been successful in STEM fields report having both informal peer mentors as well as more senior mentors. While men and women in STEM place about equal value on formal mentors, women value informal mentors more, according to Marie Garland, executive director of Syracuse University’s National Science Foundation Advance IT initiative for increasing the participation and advancement of women in engineering careers.

What are some guidelines for those seeking the best out of a mentor-mentee relationship? Lynn Mayo, a vice president at AECOM, says she has sought guidance from mentors throughout her 30-year career and suggests forming a relationship with a mentor before asking for career advice. “It’s much easier to mentor someone when you know their strengths, weakness, and aspirations,” she says. Mayo also finds it helpful for the mentee to ask focused questions, as it’s much easier to give advice on a specific topic than respond to a general request for advice. Mentees should also respect the time of their mentors: Save senior mentors for the important questions; use peer mentors to gain a different perspective or to talk through a challenge.

How can young engineers find mentors, and how can more experienced engineers willing to be mentors make themselves known? Those seeking mentors should look for people they want to emulate and with whom they have a professional relationship. Mentors need not be the same gender, and a mentor could be a more experienced colleague or a supervisor. Veteran engineers can open the door to potential mentees by being approachable and offering to answer any questions.

“It’s best to have several mentors,” says Mayo. “When you have multiple mentors, you can approach different mentors based on specific needs.”

This article originally appeared in print as “For Women Engineers, Mentoring Helps.”

About the Author

Theresa Sullivan Barger has covered business, health, the environment, and careers for The New York Times, Family Circle, and others. Reflecting on this article, she noted: “So many women feel marginalized and undervalued that they give up on their profession,” she says. “Sometimes just having a mentor who has faced similar discrimination and figured out a way to be taken seriously makes all the difference.”

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