Why Female-to-Female Mentorship Matters

Two young women leaders hiking. One young woman reaches out to help the other.

In 2017, only 24% of women worked in STEM fields. What’s even more troubling than this statistic is that 50% of women leave the industry in the first 10 years*. But, what if we could change this? A recent study, by Tara C. Dennehy and Nilanjana Dasgupta, determined that “having a female mentor (vs. male mentor or no mentor) preserved women’s belonging in engineering…” There’s a strong movement to spark an interest in STEM at a young age by making the context fun and relevant and to expose both genders to the opportunities a STEM career presents.  However, once we’re “sold“ the level of support in college and into our careers drastically decreases.

Growing up, I was lucky enough to have a mentor in the family.  My aunt—a principal software quality engineer in the medical device industry. She encouraged me to attend math camps in middle school, take the dual-enrollment college classes as a high school student  and to keep driving towards a technical degree—despite it being in a male dominated field.  Later, I bounced scenarios regarding internship options, career choices and salary negotiations off her.  I also witnessed her mentor a young woman in the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program for 10+ years. It was she who helped solidify the importance of being a mentor for other young women.

If you have been involved with any Women in STEM group, then you’re aware of the need for more women to become mentors.  It’s also important for women to be able to see themselves as leaders in their organization and having a personal relationship with a female mentor who’s now in leadership role can make this seem more achievable. A 2017 study by professional services firm Egon Zehnder found that only 54% of women have access to senior leaders who act as mentors or informal sponsors in their career**. If you’re in a leadership role, make sure you’re supporting other women (and men) on their career path. In this TEDx Talk, Beth Monaghan encourages women to Leave the Ladder Down.

Here’s a few pointers from my experience as a mentor:

1. Build the relationship 

I recommend starting out with a short-term gig.  The commitment to mentor a summer intern, for example, is much less than the time you spend mentoring an employee.  Participating as a short-term mentor can allow you to gain experience with more than one mentee over time and offer perspective on what works and does not work for your mentorship style.  The first young woman I mentored in my professional career was a summer intern.  This worked great because she came back every summer for four years and we could build on the lessons learned.

2. Keep the lines of communication open

When I was a mentor with the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program, I found that sending a weekly text or email “just checking in to see how things are going” worked well.  The teenager began to expect it and she went from saying very little to telling me the difficulties of her week and the things she was looking forward to.  This also helped us go into more detail and develop a more meaningful face-to-face relationship.

3. Make it your own

Although setting goals and on-the-job training are great, I believe a mentorship is most effective when it’s shaped around both personalities.  Sharing stories of success and supporting your mentee will come naturally and inherently. You’ll also begin learning about each other’s personal life.  A mentee once asked me, “Alicia, I’m in this relationship and it’s quite serious, but there’s so much of the world I want to see. What would you do in my situation?” Without telling her a definite yes or no, I walked her through what my thought process was as a college aged, career-driven young woman.  It was flattering that she had this level of trust in me.

If you have been contemplating becoming a mentor or you are ready to find a mentor for yourself, there is no better time than now to get involved. Remember, it’s just as important for mentees to be proactive in finding a mentor as it is for mentors to make themselves available. One way that has helped me meet more women in my company has been by joining the Society of Women Engineers and attending the regional/national conferences.  I have exchanged contact information with many exceptional women who are in roles I did not know existed.  Choosing someone to be my next mentor who has the title, position or experiences I am hoping to achieve will be much easier now that I have expanded my field of knowledge outside of my own circle  This Forbes article discusses, How More Women Can Get The Right People In Their Corner.

Do you have examples of success as a mentee or mentor? Share them with the group and/or resources you find helpful for mentoring by replying below.

*Source: U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration Office of the Chief Economist Women in STEM: 2017 Update

**Source: Forbes, How More Women Can Get the Right People In Their Corner.