The Importance of Female Mentors in STEM

By Karen Purcell
Author of Unlocking Your Brilliance: Smart Strategies for Women to Thrive in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math
As a society, we learn about the world and advance our well-being through science and engineering. The United States may be known around the world for its higher education, but compared to many other leading and steadily emerging countries we lack a strong focus on educating scientists and engineers. One significant reason that we have fallen behind is that we do not encourage our female students to pursue career paths in Science, Technology, Engineering or Math (STEM). This needs to change, as the lack of women in STEM will continue to plague our country until all students, regardless of sex, have adequate opportunities to explore math and science throughout elementary, middle, and high school. If we want to attract the best and brightest minds into the fields that will move us forward, we can no longer look to only half of the population. More women can contribute to our field and we can help make that happen.
One of the most important confidence builders can be found day to day on the job or in school in the form of a mentor. Teaming with a mentor is a career strategy that can bring huge benefits, especially to women in unbalanced work environments like engineering. The majority of successful women time and time again credit their participation in some sort of mentorship for dramatically helping them reach their career goals.
However, even with mentorship, the fact still remains that women in STEM careers have higher attrition rates than do their male coworkers and women in careers outside of the STEM disciplines. In 2005, the Society of Women Engineers conducted a retention study of over 6000 engineering graduates. The survey indicated that one in four women were either unemployed or employed in other fields compared to one in ten men (Frehill, L., SWE, Summer 2008, page 15). Addressing the reasons why the attrition rates are drastically higher is important for starting the discussion and correcting the problem. Researchers are exploring other factors that possibly overwhelm women in STEM fields, including extreme work schedules, more frequent disciplinary actions and unclear rules about advancement.
Women are gaining numbers in traditionally male dominated fields, but they are still significantly outnumbered in STEM occupations. Getting talented women into male dominated careers is one struggle, while keeping them is another. The issue is especially apparent in STEM careers, which is extremely important to the global economy.
If girls cannot visualize themselves in STEM careers because they have never seen women in those positions, they will be much less likely to ever use their innate aptitudes and abilities in a math or science oriented specialty. That will truly be a loss of gigantic proportion, for our women, our profession and our country.

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