Women keep women in engineering, study shows

Engineers build the infrastructure to everything we use but there are still not enough women pursuing this important career—a 2012 government report found that only 14% of U.S. engineers are women.

But a new study has found that a female mentor can make all the difference for keeping women in engineering.

A 2017 University of Massachusetts-Amherst study found that female engineering students who had a fellow female engineering student as a peer mentor became more motivated, more confident, felt increased senses of belonging and were less likely to drop out of their engineering courses.

This is especially significant because 40% of women engineers quit the field or never use their degree.

Female peer mentors increase retention

In a multiyear field experiment, researchers recruited 150 female engineering students and randomly gave them a female mentor, a male mentor, or no mentor.

The students would meet once a month with their mentors to discuss homework, careers, and everyday academic problems.

That one-on-one time made a difference. The first-year female students without mentors were more likely to consider switching their major out of the engineering field. Female students with mentors were more likely than other groups to want to pursue engineering after college.

100% of the women paired with female mentors stayed in engineering — compared with 82% of female students with male mentors and 89% of those who didn’t have mentors.

The study is yet another refutation of the widely discredited “Queen Bee” theory that suggests that more experienced women push down younger women. Several studies, including this one, demonstrate the opposite: that women can create powerful networks for each other.

Mentors preserve your self-confidence

Students with female mentors maintained their belief that they possessed the skills to overcome academic difficulties. Meanwhile, students with male mentors or no mentors were more likely to feel increasingly anxious and overwhelmed in their first year.

“It’s not that having a female mentor increased belonging or confidence—it just preserved it,” researcher Nilanjana Dasgupta said.

Researchers found that grades didn’t affect student’s commitment to engineering, but their sense of belonging and confidence did. Although female students with male mentors had slightly more stable grade point averages than other groups, that didn’t translate to wanting to stay in engineering.

That makes sense. You can be a high-performing academic achiever, but it won’t matter if you don’t believe in yourself.

That self-confidence was most seen with female mentees who had supportive role models who looked like them. Although mentees reported admiring both their male and female mentors, “women mentees felt somewhat closer and more similar to female mentors than male mentors,” the study said.

As the Dasgupta told The Atlantic, “you can be what you can’t see.” She believes that “our ability alone doesn’t determine whether we stay in or leave a field. It’s ability mixed in that feeling that these are your people, this is where you belong.”

And for young women, that’s what a female mentor can give you in a critical point in your early career: a future that you can see because she’s right in front of you.