Women mentors are helping change the face of engineering

Recruiting for skilled engineers for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) industries is on the rise, there is still a concern over the lack of women in the engineering sector and having strong female mentors could help reverse those challenges.

By Jessica Potts September 15, 2017

Demand for engineers in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) industries is accelerating at a rapid pace. Many companies are looking for engineers with the right skillset to join their organization, but there is a shortage of qualified candidates. And while recruiting for skilled engineers for STEM industries is on the rise, there are concerns about the lack of diversity in their candidates, particularly with women.

The engineering divide

It is predicted that just 9% of the U.K.’s engineers are female, while the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) believe women represent only 6% of the engineering workforce. The sexism has been long ingrained in the industry, making it harder for women to break into the sector. While the barriers are being brought down and attitudes are changing, it will take time to disparage the notions and prove that STEM studies can be adopted equally.

There are signs of improvement with more and more female students going into STEM. What’s important with female engineering students is that they go on to make an impact on the industry and hopefully encourage more women to build the community and take up engineering. One of the best ways is to focus on the role of female mentors.

The impact of mentors

Mentoring can be a powerful tool, not just in studies but also throughout the whole lifecycle of a career. A mentor offers a sounding board for ideas, a word of wisdom when the mentee is stuck on an issue or draw on their own experience for a solution. Mentors can help to keep mentees motivated and encouraged. Most importantly mentors show their mentees that they are not alone and that they have support in any situation.

How women mentors help female engineering students

In a recent study by Nilanjana Dasgupta at the University of Massachusetts, Dasgupta delved into the world of female mentors to see the level of impact they have upon their mentees. Her results were conclusive, showing the profound long-term benefits female mentors can have on female engineering students.

In the study, Dasgupta found that none of the students mentored by female engineers dropped out of their studies in the first year of university. 11% of female students who didn’t have a mentor (the control group) dropped out and 18% of female students with male mentors left their course in the first year of studies. This research provided quite a noticeable difference.

Key benefits of female mentors

Interestingly, the subjects discussed between students and their mentors were very similar, yet students with male mentors noticed a significant number of dropouts. This suggests that women offer different responses to questions rather than tackling issues outside of studies.

The students listed the benefits of female mentors, which included: 

  • More motivation and self-assurance
  • Less anxious in their studies and being "wrong"
  • The mentor acting as a role model of what they can aspire to
  • Support for career progression
  • A forum for advice and sharing ideas.

The mentors also found benefits themselves by encouraging more women to enter the field and having an impact on the next generation of female engineers.

Rise in female mentors

With the benefits of female engineering mentors being seen, the demand for female mentors is increasing in both universities and workplaces so that they can evolve the community for the better. The mentality "if she can do it, so can I" is strong and needs to be harnessed.

Charities have noticed the demand and are helping to evolve the engineering community for the better. Movements such as the Million Women Mentors help to ensure that women and girls are supported and encouraged in STEM subjects and careers.

Where next?

It’s clear that female peers who mentor can help others to feel confident in their engineering skills. What’s more the feeling of inclusion, acceptance and belonging in a social network helps to push women further in their industry, allowing them to progress their career in the way they want to, without a glass ceiling mentality.

Events such as International Women in Engineering Day can really help to raise awareness but more needs to be done in school education, to encourage budding engineers from a very early age. Once children know they are not alone in their interest of building, creating and technology, they can strive to make an impact in the industry regardless of gender or race and feel like they belong in the engineering community.

Jessica Potts is head of marketing at TopEngineer, the world’s largest engineering job search engine. TopEngineer is a CFE Media content partner. Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media, cvavra@cfemedia.com.

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See a related story about women in engineering as well as the Control Engineering and Plant Engineering  Leaders Under 40 winners.