Why Women in Engineering Need Mentors (And the Lack Thereof)

What is Engineering Anyway?

During my time in high school I was drawn to the science classes. There were no engineering courses, or at least nothing that would have given me insight into what the heck engineering entailed. I thought it was something that was for nerdy guys who spent a whole bunch of time in their basements, mysteriously gifted with the ability to connect wires and understand green 1011110000s flowing across the screen like in the Matrix. I was certainly not born with these innate basement lurking gifts.

It was a family friend who introduced me to what an engineering degree might involve. She was about 4 years older than me, and when my family when to visit hers, they convinced her to give me a tour of her college. She was studying chemical engineering and introduced me to a world I would have had trouble gaining information about otherwise.

I was shown labs for all sorts of chemical experiments ranging from ovens that burned material and tested the output to biology labs where I was shown results from gel electrophoresis. It was fascinating, and not even close to what I had assumed engineering would be. Without someone already in the field guiding me through, I probably would not have chosen to go into engineering.

A recent article written by US News discusses the necessity of women already in college reaching out to high school women. Seeing women who are already in the field of engineering may be inspiring. Furthermore, a mentor figure can give a better idea of what exactly the field of engineering is.

The “Natural” Engineer

There is no doubt that part of the reason more women don’t go into engineering is because they don’t know what it is. But beyond that, there are other factors that may be causing women to drop out or not even pursue it in the first place. In a study done by Heyman et. al. 2002, it was found that women were far more likely to believe that engineering is a fixed ability. This is a serious problem for more than one reason. For instance, we are training women to believe from a young age that it’s the men who build things. This can be seen in children’s advertising. So if you have been raised to be good at certain things (playing dolls and baking as opposed to building things) and you believe that engineering is an ability that you either have or don’t have, then you probably wont choose to go into engineering.

A ‘B’ is failing

The women that do pursue engineering have usually made an identity by being naturally good at math or science. So, when the first hard class comes along, it’s a challenge to what they thought they were naturally good at (Heymen 2002). If you already believe engineering is an ability you are born with, then struggling with a course may be proof that you really aren’t inherently good at something and you should drop out.

Having a mentor or an older engineering student can be very helpful for new engineering students. It’s especially important to have someone to tell you “hey, getting a B in a class is okay, everyone struggles with this.” We need new engineering students to stick with the path and not be deterred at the first challenge because they believe they just don’t have the inherent gift.

Where Are All the Mentors for Women

Women in general have expressed a lack of mentors in the working world. NPR did a great piece on this problem and discussed a linkedin article where only 1 in 5 women felt they had a mentor to guide them through the working world. This may be a bigger problem in some areas than others.

In my personal experience, finding a mentor in engineering can be difficult with the lack of existing women. As sad as it is, there are still professors and TAs out there that use their authoritative positions to lure in young women to “mentor” and then try to take the relationship a step further. Sadly, while these occurrences do not happen as often, the implications are far reaching. It makes men afraid to be categorized as one of these jerks, it makes women uneasy to approach men as mentors, and finally the women who do experience these jerks have a completely changed perception of their value. One recent example of this situation was when I was at a conference and I heard a male grad student go up to a male professor and say “Hey, we should grab a beer later.” If I were to do that, I would be very concerned about the connotations associated with asking that kind of question, and I’m sure the person I would ask it to would be as well.

There are definitely great male mentors to men and women out there. The issue, as I stated above, is that if men are less likely to want to mentor a female student, and there are very few women in the field to begin with, then we have a problem.

Mentoring for the Future

If we want to attract more women into engineering fields, and reduce the number of women that leave engineering early on, then it is important that we increase mentors for women. A person to person connection can be very helpful in changing the perceptions associated with engineering and what exactly is required to pursue a degree in engineering.

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