The Importance of Mentorship for Young Women in STEM

Enjoy this guest post, written by Avery Phillips. – Kimberly

There’s a very big, and very important, conversation happening right now around the technology sector. Women are embracing their truths, speaking out, and bringing awareness to the various serious problems that plague male-majority industries.

It’s a conversation that has been long overdue, and it’s bound to lead to some overwhelming changes within the technology (and any other) industry. And it’s certainly true that dismantling the toxic behavior embedding within Silicon Valley culture will help reshape the diversity of the workplace. However, there are other issues still preventing women and people of color from joining the technology field.

Much of these barriers can be boiled down to a very rudimentary level: money, education, and access to opportunities. However, there are other elements at play that can help marginalized groups feel more welcome within the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. One of these elements is mentorship: inspiring marginalized groups to pursue the fields that interest them most.

But why is it that mentorship is so influential to the gender (and diversity) gap in technology? Let’s look at how other programs aimed at educating or inspiring women often fail, and how mentorship from the top down can bridge the gap, allowing for a more diverse future for all STEM fields.

Gaps in Education

Where education programs often fall short is their assumption that women think differently than men. This often results in classes or programs that take a softer approach to coding or mathematics and completely overlooks the fact that every individual has a unique approach to learning. Gender (and the negative assumptions that come with it) are all societal constructs. Women don’t think differently than men, but they are often treated different because of their gender — including how people assume they learn.

The largest evidence against this commonly held idea can be found in college enrollment from the past few decades. As the Washington Post covered in 2015, women were falling behind in earning bachelor’s degrees year over year, but not due to the style of learning so much as the access, scholarships granted, and availability of jobs post-graduation.

For example: in 2004, women made up about 23 percent of computer science degrees, but that number dropped to 18 percent in 2014. It would be unreasonable to assume that women lost the ability to keep up educationally with their male cohorts in that 10-year time, but much more reasonable to assume that women were turned off to pursuing a STEM education due to other factors.

The New Jersey Institute of Technology acknowledged these factors in a recent infographic on the gender gap within STEM. One portion of the research points to the access women have to scholarships and how they are rarely awarded to women pursuing STEM educations:

“The number of female winners of scholarly awards is only half — in some cases a third or even a quarter — of what it should be, given the number of female Ph.D.s. For instance, women represented about 13 percent of newly awarded Ph.D.s in math [in 2014], but only about 4-5 percent of scholarly award winners in math; 25 percent of newly awarded Ph.D.s in genetics, but only about 6 percent of scholarly award winners in the field.”

Of course, this is only one issue out of many that is preventing young women from pursuing a STEM career, with cultural expectations playing the largest role of all. Luckily, there’s a way for women at the top to make a lasting difference through role modeling and mentorship.

The Power of a Role Model

Think back to your time in school. Did you ever have a teacher, a mentor, or someone who really stands out in your memory as being a big influencer in your life? Most likely you do, and although it might be easy to downplay the importance of your mentor, the fact remains that they helped inspire you to pursue your goals.

In an article written for Entrepreneur, Anna Propas argues that mentorship is really at the bottom of the gender gap in the tech industry. In this article, she references a study performed by John Hopkins University that revealed how black students were more likely to graduate general schooling if they had at least one black teacher between third and fifth grade. Here’s a quote from the study: “Having at least one black teacher in third through fifth grades reduced a black student’s probability of dropping out of school by 29 percent, the study found. For very low-income black boys, the results are even greater – their chance of dropping out fell 39 percent.”

Although it might seem important to have role models in high school, the real difference can come at an even younger — and more formative — age: during elementary school. Students that were able to relate to their teacher during such an important time in their life felt more secure in their abilities to succeed. Although this study looked at the unique relationship between young people of color and their teachers, it could easily be applied to the women and lack of diversity in technology scenario: if young people of marginalized communities are given the opportunity to be taught important science skills at this age, they are far more likely to continue to pursue those topics later in life. They will feel more confident in their abilities to succeed.

However, as Anna Propas notes: “Directing children to role models such as highly successful professionals or historical figures can set unachievable standards of success and sometimes make the problem worse.”

There are plenty of excellent women scientists who have been able to overcome the gender gap in technology, but many of them did so due to advanced schooling and pre-existing wealth. So how can women at the top help influence current students, without discouraging them due to unachievable standards? The problem could easily be solved by focusing on a different group: elementary teachers.

By working alongside teachers to help them understand basic programming skills, coding, or even putting funding into STEM programs for third to fifth graders, women in STEM careers could help push the next generation to greatness. Funding schools and mentoring teachers could create the same “role model effect” as was presented in the John Hopkins research.

Additionally, having a role model to call back on during high school can help women interested in STEM pursue higher education. Considering most STEM careers require a master’s degree or higher, this could help students stay motivated to work through the 8 or more years it will take to achieve a degree that can land them a career in their desired field.  

Mentorship Within the Tech Industry

However, the importance of mentorship extends outside of schooling as well. Since most tech companies have a small percentage of women on staff, having a lack of mentorship and support in these scenarios can also create issues related to wage inequality and imposter syndrome. Women will feel less confident in their abilities if they don’t have a support system to build them up, and can be passed up for raises or promotions because of it.

Mentorship can make a difference in the office, but it should also be coupled with other beneficial perks, such as a greater emphasis on healthcare benefits, maternity/paternity leave, and a better balance between work and life. Workplaces also need to increase their effort in becoming more inclusive to marginalized groups, and work hard on increasing their diversity — not for the sake of numbers, but for the sake of allowing everyone an opportunity to succeed. If businesses work on building a more diverse workforce, they’ll see an increase in profits and an increase in innovation, as diversity and innovation go hand in hand.

In the end, the push for more women in STEM starts at the top: with CEOs, hiring managers, and successful women that can act as mentors and education funders. If we want to build a more inclusive workforce, we have to work hard to lift up each other, while also working on inspiring the next generation of engineers and scientists. The rest will simply fall into place.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Avery Taylor Phillips – Avery is a freelance human being with too much to say. She loves nature and examining human interactions with the world. Comment or tweet her @a_taylorian with any questions or suggestions.  Check out her blog on https://www.equities.com/user/AveryTaylorPhillips

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