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Face-Time with S&T Leaders Gives Women Scientists a View of New Mentoring Options

Sixty women scientists and engineers lined up in rows facing each other. At the ping of a bell, they were off, swapping stories of their backgrounds, what they seek in their careers, and sometimes even compliments about accessories. A minute later, the bell pinged again and the women—some of whom were exasperated by the brevity of the conversations—rotated to talk to another participant in the speed-networking exercise.

Some came from industry labs, others came from faculty and postdoctoral positions; all came to seek out mentoring. In the networking exercise, they learned about a facet of mentoring that can be overlooked or considered not as valuable as others: informal mentoring from colleagues and friends.

The mentoring workshop was hosted by the AAAS Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity and funded by a National Science Foundation grant from the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Engineering and Mathematics program to Pennsylvania State University. Originally the organizers planned for 40 participants, but were amazed when those slots filled up quickly. They expanded it to 60, and it again filled up. The waiting list had 100 names on it when the workshop began.


Donna Dean and Daphne Rainey

“Clearly we’ve tapped a real need,” said Barbara Bogue, a professor at Penn State College of Engineering. Bogue co-organized the mentoring workshop with Daryl Chubin, director of the AAAS center, and Yolanda Comedy, a public policy consultant specializing in science and technology issues

People can have a fairly standard view of a mentoring relationship. A young scientist or engineer needs advice and seeks out an experienced professional. Or she is assigned a mentor through a formal program. The common ground may not be anything more than the field of study. The relationship persists for years, as the protégé completes a college or university degree or as she advances within a company or other institution.

But during the day-long workshop, mentoring emerged as something much more. Workshop participants discussed mentoring relationships that lasted from one minute in non-work environments, when a chance piece of advice can change a career, to relationships that last years. Participants extolled the benefits of having multiple mentors at the same time. And many acknowledged challenges that arise with mentoring, including how women work effectively with men mentors.

Bogue, Chubin, and Comedy designed the interactive workshop so that participants could talk to professionals from a variety of science and technology workplaces, including academia, industry and nonprofits. “Too often, people assume that environments in other sectors are so different that sharing won’t be fruitful,” said Bogue. “We wanted to bring a variety of folks together to benefit from accumulated wisdom.”

Sometimes a faculty or industry mentor can only offer advice in the career path that they have followed, she added. “People typically don’t know much about careers in other sectors. And what they do know is not always accurate.”


Daryl Chubin


The workshop sought to improve mentoring, which in many cases involves improving individual relationships, said Chubin. “Graduate advisors seldom receive formal training on how to be a mentor. And a lot of graduate students don’t know how to get mentored,” he said. “Developing a good mentoring relationship is one of the biggest challenges in higher education.”

At the 1 October speed-networking exercise, Chubin greeted the participants who came from universities, companies, government agencies and other research institutions from across the continental United States and Hawaii. “We believe that mentoring is more than a bunch of pairings,” Chubin told the women in his welcoming remarks. “It’s a web of relationships.”

He encouraged participants to keep an open mind, to delve into reciprocal mentorships and to always seek out mentoring. “You’re never too old to be mentored,” Chubin said.

Comedy noted how important mentoring is in developing both a career strategy and in managing day-to-day career issues. “Mentoring is a two-way relationship. You don’t just sit in front of someone waiting for them to tell you what to do,” she said. “You interact by preparing questions, thoughts and issues in advance. And you should always try to have something to share with your mentor that can benefit them as well.”

At the workshop on 2 October, small groups consisting of two mentors and 8 to 10 participants met for short discussions before the mentors rotated to talk to another group of participants. In one discussion group, a participant talked about how she didn’t want to be pigeonholed, and another wanted to know how to take on different jobs within an organization. Mentor Daphne Rainey—program director for Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Engineering and Mathematics—offered some suggestions, such as volunteering as a way to develop new skills. “No one will turn down free help,” she said. Volunteering will help build your network, she added.

Working at NSF “was always on my career plan,” Rainey told her group. Before she got a job there, she asked NSF program officers how to prepare and made it known that she wanted to join the organization. And then, she got a job call seemingly out of the blue. “Think about what you want, and help build toward it. And sometimes, you’ll find something else,” Rainey said.

Mentor Donna Dean, senior science advisor at the advocacy group Lewis-Burke Associates LLC, told the group that assessing trade-offs is part of any career choice. “Everything is a trade-off because you can’t have it all. No life is 100% happy,” she said. But she said thinking through choices and knowing the trade-offs makes it easier to live with a job that isn’t completely perfect. And if a job is not working out, she added, it’s time to devise an exit strategy.

In another discussion group, participants talked about how to get their ideas recognized in the workplace. Betty Shanahan, executive director and CEO of the Society of Women Engineers, encouraged the women to share ideas, noting that corporate culture values diversity. “We bring our science and engineering skills, but we also bring differences—gender, ethnicity—which can bring solutions,” she said. But she cautioned against over-doing it. Women don’t always have to exert their differences, but sometimes they do, she said. “A mentor can really help you pick your battles.”

Robert Hemler, chairman of Executive Consultants, stressed the importance of knowing the history of how something came to be before suggesting how to change it. “New ideas are okay within a given context,” he said. But they have to be “cooked.” Hemler, an electrical engineer with 30 years of executive and managerial experience in technology-based businesses, told participants to prepare a two-minute speech for pitching ideas. Two minutes is all you’re going to get, he said. “That’s how business is done.”

The discussion shifted to a topic that’s uneasy for some women—and some men. One participant expressed concern over finding common ground with a male mentor. Shanahan said that sometimes male engineers don’t feel comfortable approaching women as potential protégés. Shanahan encouraged the women in her group to reach out to male mentors by starting with informal mentorship, such as asking the mentor if he could meet with her briefly over the next several months about a particular project. That way, the mentor has a specific and finite mentoring role, Shanahan said

Hemler echoed Shanahan’s suggestion for informal, short-term mentoring with the idea of a “one-minute mentor.” Mentoring can happen simply by asking others for ideas and feedback, even if it is a single, brief conversation. Hemler shared a personal anecdote in which he solicited advice while grocery shopping. He stressed the value of human interaction: “That’s all mentoring is,” Hemler said.

Hemler added that fears of sexual harassment can dissuade men from mentoring women. “We’re very confined by what culture allows us to do,” he said. Based on his experience working at technical companies such as General Electric, Hemler said, some men prefer to be assigned to a mentorship, which gives “legitimacy” to the relationship.

During a panel discussion, participants shared stories of the good and the bad of their mentorship experiences and discussed how mentoring has made a difference in their careers so far. The discussion highlighted different forms of mentorship. Panelist Tracey Thomas, a senior consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton, said that she has a very practical mentor right now. Thomas recounted some of the advice she’s received: “You’ve got some downtime, here’s some training you should do. Your evaluation is coming up, here’s what you should do to prepare.”

Another panelist, Sunshine Menezes, described how she sought out peer mentorship during grad school when she realized that her Ph.D. adviser was not providing enough guidance. Menezes, an oceanographer by training, said that during graduate school she received mentoring from her friends. She felt comfortable around them, and trusted them to give honest, straightforward advice.

Like many other participants, Menezes talked about her need for an assortment of mentors. Her new job as executive director of the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting at the University of Rhode Island requires her to do some fundraising and to manage a small staff. “Those are not skills I was taught in grad school,” she said. She’s hoping she can find mentors who will help her see the big picture.

In wrapping up the discussion, Chubin agreed that trust is essential in a mentoring relationship, and that mentoring is part of a much larger support system. “You have some people who say you can’t be friends” with the person you’re mentoring, he said. “But that’s not always true. One size doesn’t fit all.”

He described how a successful mentor will put the protégé in situations where they will get experience. And he emphasized the necessity of multiple mentors at different career stages: “You have different needs, so you’ll have different mentors who will play different roles at different times.”

Speaking after the meeting, Chubin said women continue to need structured conversations about career progression. “Strategies and tools that bring fulfillment and productivity are what are in demand,” he said. “This workshop let participants hear real examples of how successful professionals negotiated their way through organizations where the ground rules lack clarity, and where organizational and personal expectations do not fit well.”

Given the high interest in the workshop, the organizers are planning another mentoring event for women, which is contingent on NSF funding.