Female mentors foster greater sense of belonging among women studying engineering: Research

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Recent research has shed light on the role of female mentors in helping women feel they belong in the traditionally male-dominated field of engineering, suggesting mentorship could help reduce attrition rates among women in STEM fields.

The University of Massachusetts Amherst study, conducted over a six-year period by social psychologist Nilanjana Dasgupta and PhD student Tara C. Dennehy, found that after their first college year, 100% of women students mentored by advanced female peers remained in engineering majors.

This compared with an 18% dropout rate for women students with male mentors and 11% for women with no mentors.

“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,” Dasgupta commented.

Putting these numbers into context, the research found that while women make up more than 50% of university students in the US, they hold only between 13 and 33% of bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering, computer and physical sciences.

Among the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), the researchers say engineering is notable “for having one of the lowest proportions of women”.

The researchers found having a female mentor maintained young women’s aspirations to pursue engineering careers. Conversely,  the women with no peer mentor showed sharp declines in feelings of belonging, confidence in ability, motivation and interest in pursuing advanced engineering degrees.

The researchers also found that women students’ first-year grades were not associated with retention in engineering majors, despite assumptions of a link between the two.

“What was correlated with retention were their feelings of belonging and confidence,” Dasgupta commented.

“Women who felt that they fit into engineering and felt confident about their ability persisted in these majors.”

The researchers say the results support the Stereotype Inoculation Model, with exposure to successful own-group peers serving as a “social vaccine” and inoculating against noxious stereotypes, especially during times when individuals are going through development transitions.

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