Isolation of women employees—their virtual exclusion from the culture in organizations where men predominate—can be the biggest and most significant impediment to women who are trying to establish, maintain, or progress in S&T careers. And comparable isolation in schools can be a major hurdle to girls who are considering such careers. A good way of supporting girls and young women in science and engineering education, and of assisting them once they are looking for work or being employed, is mentoring.
A mentor applies her or his experience, expertise, and contacts to help protégées exploit opportunities and face challenges that arise. The mentor can help launch a new employee on a successful career path by providing information and advice on subtle issues such as the organization’s policies, procedures, and politics. The mentor can acknowledge achievements by the protégée and offer support when problems are encountered; and encourage the protégée to enhance her skills through, for example, training courses. And as a means to raise a new employee’s profile in the organization and field, the mentor can simply introduce the protégée to colleagues. Women who have made it to senior positions in the organization have a special obligation to give guidance to and promote women in early career.
A mentoring relationship can grow informally between friends or people who work together, or it can be initiated within a formal scheme. An example of the latter is the mentoring programme of the Future Harvest Centres of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (Wilde and Shields, 2002). Ford Motor Company also has a successful mentoring scheme.
While a mentor can help a young woman scientist jump-start her career and make new professional contacts, other types of support, especially within an organization, are required as well. She needs a sponsor— someone who has the authority to assign women to key positions or onto committees. And she needs an advocate —a person who is familiar with her skills and capabilities and can recommend and endorse her candidacy for positions that provide advancement (Etzkowitz et al., 2000).
But as long as the institutional culture remains non-inclusive, what a woman scientist or engineer needs most on an ongoing basis is a network of colleagues who can support each other and share the benefits of their experience in comparable situations.
Professional societies, women’s organizations, and regional and local projects have developed such useful resources, often supported by websites. In addition, there are projects, such as UNESCO’s Ipazia programme (www.womensciencenet.org) and the Global Alliance for Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce (www.globalalliancesmet.org), that aim to link women scientists and engineers across the world. Networks perform a useful role not only by offering support to women but also by making employers aware of good-management-practice measures.
It should be noted that mentoring, sponsoring, advocating, and networking have long been universally accepted, even cherished, by men scientists and engineers. These processes are so routine—between men within male-dominated organizations—that they occur almost subconsciously. One day, women may participate equally and there will be no need to distinguish between genders. One day, for instance, a network of organic chemists will simply serve those professionals, women and men alike. In the meantime, networks, mentors, sponsors, and advocates aimed specifically at girls and women will help keep them in the game and perhaps hasten the arrival of that happy day.
Members of the IAC