Issue Date: November 1, 2010
Wanted: Role Models
Signs indicate that the job market for chemical professionals is slowly awakening, and optimism about the future is slowly returning to the chemistry community (see page 38). But women of color in the chemical sciences might not share in this sense of relief. That's because this demographic continues to be underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) workforce—especially at the senior levels.
What may give these women some hope, however, is the growing recognition in the scientific community that women of color face unique obstacles in the workplace and that mentorship can play a crucial role in helping these women break through barriers and advance in their careers.
"I've been successful at so many things that I would not have been successful at if I had not had a mentor giving me an opportunity or providing me with a skill set or a resource that I needed to be successful," says Gloria Thomas, assistant professor of chemistry at Xavier University of Louisiana, who is Asian and African American.
"The more women of color we can bring into the workplace in highly successful roles, the better for women of color in general," says Samina Azad, manager of the analytical laboratory at SouthWest NanoTechnologies, who grew up in Bangladesh.
"Many times, you don't know what is expected of you," says Novella N. Bridges, senior research chemist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory who is African American. "Being mentored allows us to know what the expectations are."
One of the earliest observations of the challenges facing women of color in STEM fields came in the 1976 American Association for the Advancement of Science report "The Double Bind: The Price of Being a Minority Woman in Science," which found that women scientists of color struggled much more in advancing their education and careers than did white women or men of any race or ethnicity.
In October 2009, a mini-symposium on Women of Color in STEM, organized by Cambridge, Mass.-based STEM research organization TERC, sought to determine progress since the 1976 report. Unfortunately, little action had been taken to correct the situation, said Maria (Mia) Ong, one of the symposium's organizers (C&EN, Nov. 16, 2009, page 37).
Symposium attendees offered recommendations to improve the situation. One suggestion was a call for more funding to support the mentoring of minority and female graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and junior faculty.
The importance of mentorship for women scientists of color was reiterated during the daylong Women Chemists of Color Summit held at the fall American Chemical Society national meeting in Boston. Women of color shared their experiences and advice on overcoming challenges and credited the many mentors who helped them advance in their careers.
Like networking, finding good mentors takes patience and hard work. To help women navigate the process, C&EN sought advice from several women of color whose careers have benefited from mentoring. These women are now giving back to the community as mentors themselves.
The first and foremost step to developing an effective mentoring relationship is to know yourself, Bridges says. "Don't go to your mentor to tell you what it is that you want," she says. "It's your life and your career, and you've got to make the final decision. The mentor is just there to help you navigate a smooth trip because they've been down that path before."
Women scientists of color may be inclined to seek other women of color as mentors. But "in most cases, as a woman of color, your professional mentor will not be the same race as you" because you may be among only a handful of women of color in your workplace, says Bridges, who has had mentors of various genders and ethnicities. But that's okay because "it isn't about who the mentors are, but about what they can help you with."
It's important to have a network of personal mentors, peer mentors, and professional mentors, Bridges says. "You need different types of people to mentor you throughout your career. You want their insights, and you want their perspectives."
Thomas encourages people who are new to mentoring to take advantage of the many mentoring programs that are available. These programs "are absolutely essential because many students do not know that they need a mentor, or they may be uncomfortable with the process," she says. "If they can take that first step and learn the value of it and get help in finding at least one mentor, then maybe they will be encouraged to seek out mentors on their own."
Of course, not all mentoring relationships turn out to be a good match. "If I felt like the person was overbearing, or I didn't see us having a good connection, I would find some way to get out of that mentoring relationship," Bridges says. "If you think this might not be the right situation, put a time limit on it."
Networking and finding mentors often go hand in hand. "You can use your mentors to help you network, and you can use your network to help you find mentors," Thomas says.
Scientific conferences are a fertile source of mentors. When you identify a potential mentor, "sit back and observe them," Bridges says. "Pay attention to their mannerisms, how they handle situations, and how they carry themselves professionally. All those things go into how you select who it is you want for a professional mentor."
Azad encourages women to volunteer in a professional capacity. "You have to find somebody who has something in common with you, and the best way is to be on a committee or be part of an organization and you work side by side with people," says Azad, who has found many mentors through her work on the ACS Women Chemists Committee. "That will give you a chance to know other people and at the same time see who can be your mentor and whom you can mentor."
Once Bridges identifies a potential mentor, she will formally ask them to accept that role. "You have to speak up and say what it is you need from them because you've got to be honest with them and honest with their time," she says.
Sometimes, however, the mentoring relationship just happens. "I have never had a conversation where I've said, 'Will you be my mentor?' " Thomas says.
But, Bridges says, "You have to make sure the person also is in the right mind-set." A mentor "needs to be open to mentoring you." And an effective mentoring relationship involves give and take, she says. "If you're a really good mentee, you will help your mentor."
Thomas agrees. "As I talk with my students, I learn so much about what's going on in the culture now," she says. "There's a lot of growth that happens for me as well out of that relationship."
Mentoring relationships evolve, and eventually the relationship ends. "Here's the neat thing about mentors," Bridges says. "You take pieces of what your mentors give you to make the perception of yourself better. If you're starting to glean and get that perspective, that's when the mentor goes away, because they realize they can't help you anymore."
At some point, mentees will often become mentors to others. But that doesn't mean they no longer need mentors themselves. "I am absolutely both a mentor and a mentee," Thomas says. "I draw on my mentors to be a better mentor to the people that I'm mentoring."
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