Having a Female Peer Mentor Helps Young Women Stay in Engineering
Staff posted on May 24, 2017 |

A new long-term field study at the University of Massachusetts Amherst found that early in college, young women in engineering majors felt more confident about their ability, a greater sense of belonging in engineering, more motivated and less anxious if they had a female, but not male, peer mentor.

At the end of the first college year, a remarkable 100 percent of women students mentored by advanced female peers were still in engineering majors, said Nilanjana Dasgupta, a social psychologist at the University of Massachusetts who led the study.

“That number is spectacular because the first year of college is typically the time of greatest attrition from STEM majors, but none of the women with female mentors dropped out,” she added.

This compares with an 18 percent dropout rate for women students with male mentors and 11 percent for women with no mentors, the control group.

As the authors point out, women make up more than 50 percent of university students, but hold only between 13 and 33 percent of bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering, computer and physical sciences. Engineering is notable, they added, “for having one of the lowest proportions of women among all fields in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).”

Further, results of this National Science Foundation-funded study show that having a female mentor maintained young women’s aspirations to pursue engineering careers by protecting their belonging and confidence, the researchers said. Both were associated with higher retention in engineering majors. The benefits of mentoring lasted for two years, well after the intervention ended, during the window of highest attrition from STEM majors.

Dasgupta explained, “This same-gender intervention didn’t increase belonging, confidence or motivation, but it stabilized these reactions and kept them from plummeting in an environment where women students are a tiny minority.”

Study controls – women with no peer mentor – showed sharp declines in feelings of belonging in engineering, confidence in ability, motivation and interest in pursuing advanced engineering degrees. But having a female mentor preserved all of these.

Also interesting, the researchers said, is that women students’ first-year grades were not a factor associated with retention in engineering majors. The assumption is that students who leave a major are doing poorly or lack skills, Dasgupta noted. Instead, they found that during the first year of college, women’s performance in engineering and related classes was not at all correlated with retention in the major.

“What was correlated with retention were their feelings of belonging and confidence,” she said. “Women who felt that they fit into engineering and felt confident about their ability persisted in these majors.”

The authors said that their results support the Stereotype Inoculation Model, which predicts that similar to how a vaccine protects against bacteria, exposure to successful own-group peers serves as a “social vaccine” to inoculate someone against negative stereotypes. This is especially effective during developmental transitions when individuals experience self-doubt and uncertainty.

The researchers began the study in 2011, and recruited 150 incoming female engineering students over four consecutive years. Mentoring was not mentioned at recruitment, minimizing the chance that students chose to participate because of mentoring opportunities. The researchers randomly assigned participants to a female or male mentor who was an advanced student in the same major, or assigned them no mentor.

Trained mentors met with participants once a month for one academic year. Dasgupta and Tara Dennehy, a Ph.D. student assisting with the study, assessed participants’ experiences several times during the mentoring year and one year post-intervention. They are now following participants until one year post-graduation using the same survey to assess belonging, confidence, motivation, anxieties, retention in engineering majors and actual career pursuit.

Dennehy noted that participants rated male and female mentors as equally conscientious, supportive and available, yet women students assigned female peer mentors experienced large benefits, while those assigned male peer mentors looked about the same as control group with no mentors.

“A key takeaway is that in the transition to college when young women take classes where they become aware of being a tiny numeric minority, self-doubt may take hold. It is in those critical transitions when female peer mentors are most effective,” Dasgupta added.

The authors point out that while female peer mentors had significantly more desirable effects on first-year women in engineering, “this does not mean male mentors are unimportant. We expect that female mentors’ support will become less critical as women move beyond college transition, at which point male and female mentors may become equally effective.” Further, “male faculty who are scientists and engineers play important roles as advisors and career sponsors,” in women’s careers, they noted.

The researchers said these findings open the door to testing how generalizable the results are to students in other STEM fields. They also suggest similar effects may extend beyond gender to other underrepresented groups in STEM such as African-American and Latino students and first-generation college students.

Dasgupta added, “Now that we know this own-group peer mentoring is so effective, I would like to leverage these findings to institutionalize the intervention here at UMass Amherst. I’d like to take this evidence-based best practice and make it the normal part of what we do to recruit and retain underrepresented students in STEM fields broadly. This is now a field-tested remedy that demonstrably grows the pipeline of underrepresented students in STEM.”

Details of the study are available in the current early online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  To learn more, visit the University of Massachusetts Amherst website.

Source: University of Massachusetts Amherst

Recommended For You