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Mentornet Supports Women in Science

E-mentoring website is dedicated to furthering women's progress in science and technology

May 16, 2005 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 83, Issue 20

In January, Lawrence H. Summers, president of Harvard University, made headlines when he suggested that innate differences between the sexes--rather than social barriers--may explain why fewer women than men succeed in science and math careers. Although Summers has since retreated from those comments, the controversy was a stark reminder of the myths and assumptions surrounding underrepresentation. Past research, much of it reported in C&EN (Sept. 27, 2004, page 32; Aug. 9, 2004, page 18; Feb. 16, 2004, page 68), has documented that there are many barriers to women's success. These include, but are not limited to, a relative lack of professional and educational support systems and work-family conflicts. Creating and maintaining a reliable one-on-one support system is one of the more difficult tasks for any woman scientist in an academic or industrial workplace--particularly early on in her career.

MentorNet, a global electronic mentoring network for women in engineering and science, has been addressing these issues since it was founded in 1997. MentorNet pairs undergraduate and graduate students and postdocs studying science and engineering with mentors from industry, government, and academia in one-on-one, e-mail-based mentoring relationships. The company's flagship program, Industry E-Mentoring, matches women with industry and government agency mentors. Its Academic Career E-Mentoring program, introduced in 2003, matches women graduate students, postdocs, and untenured faculty with tenured faculty mentors.


MentorNet founder and Chief Executive Officer Carol B. Muller was formerly associate dean of engineering at Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H. There, she cofounded the university's award-winning Women in Science Project in 1990 to address the underrepresentation of women in science, mathematics, and engineering. "One thing I had seen work well was connecting students with people in industry," she recalls. "But it was hard to make that happen with schedules and time constraints. That led to an experiment at Dartmouth with e-mentoring, where we matched about 40 pairs of students with mentors."

After moving to California in 1996, Muller decided to ramp up the e-mentoring idea from a pilot to a nationwide launch. She put together a national advisory group, obtained grant money from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and Intel, and created a strategic and business plan. In 1997, MentorNet was officially launched. With the help of professional societies, industry, and academia, MentorNet has grown from approximately 430 student and mentor participants to more than 4,000 students and mentors in 2004-05 and more than 14,000 MentorNet members. In addition, more than 80 colleges and universities participate in MentorNet, and mentors are found at more than 800 companies. Companies with large numbers of mentor applicants include IBM, 3M, Intel, and Los Alamos National Laboratory.

MentorNet matches protégés and mentors as closely as possible. "Both mentors and protégés complete an online profile that asks for background, interests, and topics that are of particular interest as well as preferences for the type of person they'd like to be matched with," Muller explains. "The profile information then goes into a database. We've developed a set of algorithms that comb the data, weight characteristics, and then find the best matches. Immediately after creating their profiles, protégés receive detailed descriptions of five potential mentors who fit their preferences. The protégé then has 14 days to read over the profiles and make a selection." The match can be broad or narrow, based on preferences the mentors and protégés select, and lasts for eight months.

Once a mentor and protégé are matched, MentorNet provides ongoing service. "One thing that was clear from the pilot project at Dartmouth was that running a structured mentoring program requires more than just matching people," Muller says. "Students and mentors receive a weekly or biweekly coaching prompt that includes a discussion or activity suggestion to help them stay in touch and make the most of the experience." Past topics for discussion have covered getting a summer internship or co-op, study habits, career goals, graduate school, managing stress, and nontraditional jobs.

Mentoring by e-mail helps women students make key connections in their career planning.
Mentoring by e-mail helps women students make key connections in their career planning.

THE SUPPORT that mentors offer protégés is the program's most highly valued benefit. Other benefits include strategies for studying and stress and time management, as well as career management. According to a March 2004 satisfaction survey of the program by an independent evaluator, 83% of MentorNet protégés surveyed reported that their mentor provided them with support and encouragement.

About two-thirds of the mentors are women, Muller says. Many protégés specifically request a female mentor because they're looking for a female role model, though Muller is happy to have male mentors because she considers it important to engage men in addressing the underrepresentation of women in science and engineering.

Carolyn McQuaw, who is a chemistry Ph.D. candidate at Pennsylvania State University, says her two mentors have been extremely valuable. "You reach a point in the process of getting an advanced degree where you wonder if it's really worth it," she says. "You ask yourself if all this hard work is going to bring you to a better place. Mentoring has helped me realize that there are skills I learned that aren't necessarily obvious. My mentor helped me immensely when I prepared for my first oral presentation. She sent me a four-page e-mail on how to give an oral presentation, and it was a real morale booster."

McQuaw adds that the career path discussions she's had with her mentor, who works in a national lab, have been helpful. She is hoping to land a postdoc at a national lab or a university, but she is also considering a job in industry. "There are a lot of opportunities in any specific job, and my mentor has had a range of experiences from research to patents and has had jobs that required travel. I've learned about different types of jobs at national labs that I didn't realize were there, like patents or cooperative research with other departments and labs."

Initially, Julie Norville says she wasn't sure what she was getting into when she signed up for MentorNet. Norville is studying for a Ph.D. at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in electrical engineering and computer science, although her focus leans toward chemical engineering, building protein crystals by engineering methods. The mentoring relationship, she says, "complements the mentoring I get from my academic advisers. I think participating in MentorNet is a great way for faculty and industry leaders to make a difference for students who love their fields and want to succeed. It also provides a centralized resource of information that will be useful to most students."

Mentoring also helps protégés who are feeling isolated, a complaint common among women students. Ajita Rajan, a graduate student in chemical engineering at Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pa., says she joined MentorNet after receiving an e-mail about it. "There are times when I need someone to ask questions of or for networking. In engineering, there are hardly any female professors, and there are about 10 women out of 30 graduate students. It helps to talk to someone who has experienced what you're going through."

Many mentors are motivated to help by their own experiences. Christy Johnson, a Ph.D. chemical engineer who works in the Surface & Materials Science Laboratory at IBM in Burlington, Vt., remembers her own experience as isolating. "I didn't have a mentor, and there were few women in my program," she says. "Everyone finds graduate school difficult, and you look around and no one looks like you--it's a pretty isolating experience. So it's nice to hear about what things look like on the other side.

"The problem you discuss with a mentor could be your research or just stress, but it's good knowing there is someone out there to support you, someone who can be objective and who can celebrate with you when good things happen, like passing a preliminary exam," she says.

Lisa Morrison, manager for global process safety at PPG Industries, Allison Park, Pa., also says her feelings of isolation motivated her to sign on after hearing about MentorNet through the Society of Women Engineers. "There was a huge gap in talking to women about technical positions and careers," she recalls. "I remember there weren't women to ask questions of at all, and there weren't very many women professors. We have to help women see themselves in science and technology jobs by seeing women in these jobs."

Morrison's current protégé is a freshman chemical engineering student. Much of the advice she offers deals with how to get through school, and she shares information about her own career path and day-to-day responsibilities. "I do this because I believe in it, but it's also in line with my employer's values," she says. "We're looking for the workforce of the future, and, to a degree, you're doing outreach for your company. Identifying women leaders, creating a diverse workforce, and making the company attractive to people, are all good things."

Protégés report that their mentors suggested specific strategies for reaching their career goals, helped them learn about other parts of their fields, and gave them a realistic picture of jobs in their field. As a result, the protégés believe they know more about their mentors' workplaces and intend to pursue jobs in their field of study.

Although MentorNet uses e-mail as the primary method of communication, participants are encouraged to supplement the e-mentoring with phone calls. Face-to-face visits can be arranged, for example, if the mentor is on a business trip near her protégé's campus. Those arrangements are left for the mentor and protégé to decide.


E-MAIL MENTORING has numerous advantages. Participants read and write messages at their convenience, and e-mail also tends to deemphasize status differences between mentor and protégé. "When you're using e-mail, both parties need to express themselves verbally, which brings clarity of thought," Muller says. "Using an informal communication method such as e-mail helps people communicate more readily without the distractions of judgments based on appearances."

Though e-mail may lack the vibrancy and fluidity of a face-to-face conversation, it offers opportunities for contact regardless of physical location. Sally Gras is currently completing a Ph.D. in biological physics at Cambridge University, in England. She has undergraduate degrees in chemical engineering and molecular biology, both from the University of Melbourne, in Australia. Gras heard about MentorNet at a networking meeting and decided to sign up.

"I was looking for a mentor for three reasons," she says. "First, I wanted to learn about a typical day for a chemical engineer, about my mentor's career path, and about the hurdles she saw ahead in her own career. Second, I wanted to learn more about the chemical engineering industry and about industry trends. Finally, I wished to find what job opportunities there are in industry for a person with my background."

Although her mentoring relationship is relatively new, Gras is very satisfied. "Not only is my mentor a chemical engineer, but to my surprise, my mentor and I have a lot in common beyond our academic training. I can ask her a wide range of questions about management opportunities, job satisfaction, and résumés. The benefit of e-mentoring is that it allows us to communicate in our own time, when it suits our busy schedules. It also allows us to bridge huge distances, as my mentor is in the U.S."

Another benefit of using e-mail is that both mentors and protégés have time to reflect and frame their messages. "I've learned how to be clearer in an e-mail about what I'm asking," McQuaw says. "You may also have to wait a bit longer for a response, but at the same time, it means they're thinking a bit more about the question and then you get an in-depth answer. Or, a question may take you down a different path than the one you were expecting."

Overall, both mentors and protégés have been strongly satisfied with their MentorNet experience, according to MentorNet's evaluation. A majority of both groups indicated that they had recommended the service to their friends. Mentors are positive about their contributions to the next generation of women. "I feel strongly about supporting women because we're definitely underrepresented," Grace Vandal, an analytical chemist at Pfizer Global R&D, Groton, Conn., says. "It's a privilege to help someone start their career and inspire them to get excited about science. It's a great way to let someone know to hang in there, because when they get out they could be doing a job they love. You have the opportunity to have a positive impact on a student, which is important for the future of the discipline."


PROTÉGÉS APPRECIATE the positive reinforcement, information, and support they received from their mentors, which often complements that of mentors they may have at their own institutions. Protégés are also glad their mentor is not part of their formal performance evaluation system or management line, so they can speak candidly with someone who isn't going to be deciding a class grade or sitting on their orals committee. "It's nice to have someone to talk to who is not at your university," Rajan says. "Some problems aren't easy to discuss and you don't really want people in your department to know."

At times, the mentoring relationship exceeds all expectations and grows into a friendship. That was the case for Eric Jackson, a research engineer at 3M. Jackson is in his second career; in his first career, he spent 20 years in the music industry. He returned to school and graduated with a chemical engineering degree 10 years ago from Penn State. He heard about MentorNet at 3M and thought it was a great idea. "It sounded like a great opportunity to help someone," he says. "I've always wanted to help someone because I've been there myself. As a nontraditional student, it wasn't easy for me."

Jackson was matched with a ceramics engineering student and thought he might hear from her a few times. "Then we started writing and I could tell we hit it off," he says. "MentorNet sent suggestions on topics via e-mail, which encouraged us to keep e-mailing each other. At one point, I suggested that she pursue a co-op position. She was reluctant to do so, but I convinced her to try. I helped her with her résumé and recommended she practice interviewing at her campus career center. Three weeks later she called to tell me that she'd been offered the co-op at Koehler; she was selected out of 100 applicants who applied for the position. She spent six months in the co-op job and is now working permanently at Koehler." He even received an e-mail from his protégé's mother, thanking him for his support. The family traveled to Minnesota to meet him, and Jackson attended his protégé's graduation last May. They still keep in touch.

MentorNet has also seen an increased demand for academic mentors as well as for mentors in certain fields and mentors who are members of minority populations. Finding minority mentors is particularly challenging because minorities are underrepresented in science and engineering, and those who are scientists and engineers tend to be called on frequently as it is.

At a recent strategic retreat, Muller says, MentorNet's mission focus on women was reaffirmed. But the program will continue to expand to include all underrepresented groups and increase the number of people who participate. Other plans include developing auxiliary services, such as a registry of women faculty in science and engineering to complement the existing résumé database, adding a professional résumé database, and forging mentoring programs that might serve more early-career and other professionals.



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