It’s not you, it’s me: An exploration of mentoring experiences for women in STEM

Saffie-Robertson, Ma. C. (2020). It’s Not You, It’s Me: An Exploration of Mentoring Experiences for Women in STEM. Sex Roles.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Although mentoring programs can help bridge the gender gap in STEM, research indicates that men are being mentored more than their female colleagues
  • This qualitative study examines what is causing women in STEM to be mentored less
  • The author also explores the experiences of women in managerial positions in STEM
  • While findings show that women have access to potential mentors, it’s also clear that women still feel like they face many barriers in developing long-term mentoring relationships
    • Four specific barriers were identified: 
      • need for fit
      • demonstrating capability
      • commitment of the mentor
      • trust in the mentor
  • Conclusions suggest that every mentorship needs to be personalized for every mentor and mentee involved 

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Although the number of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) continues to grow, men still represent a significant majority of those employed in these industries. Mentoring programs have been identified as a useful tool to alleviate this gap and therefore have been developed in an effort to attract and retain women in STEM. However, research suggests that women are still being mentored less often than their male colleagues. To understand this issue in depth, 36 women holding managerial positions in STEM organizations in the United States and Canada were interviewed and their experiences with mentoring were discussed. The results suggest that women do have access and indeed find potential mentors but they perceive significant barriers that prevent these initial meetings from developing into long-term mentoring relationships. Specifically, four Barriers to the Development of Mentorship (BDM) were identified including: Need for Fit, Demonstrating Capability, Commitment of the Mentor, and Trust in the Mentor. BDM might help researchers and practitioners understand why women are under-mentored and consequently underrepresented in STEM workplaces. Implications of these findings are discussed, such as how to improve formal mentoring programs to overcome BDM and better serve women in STEM.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

The findings of my study, BDM in particular, could be a reflection of the socialization differences between genders traditionally explored in the psychology literature. Male relationships tend to be more instrumental, whereas female relationships tend to be more emotional in nature (Aukett et al. 1998; Felmlee et al. 2012). These socialization practices affect relationship development in such a way that “Women, in contrast to men, form close one-to-one relationships with others that involve affection, love and acceptance…and the trusting of others with worries, joys, dreams and fears” (Aukett et al. 1998, p. 59). Furthermore, women tend to place a higher importance on intimate, close, and emotional relationships, reporting greater degrees of intimacy in their interpersonal relationships than men (Felmlee et al. 2012). Thus, it should not be surprising or revolutionary to note that women may also prefer to have a level of intimacy in important work relationships, such as mentorships. Ibarra (1992) noted that these socialization preferences might also be present in other relationships built in the workplace, where women tend to establish networks that provide them with social support and friendship while their male colleagues tend to have networks that are more instrumental in nature. Therefore, the four BDM found in this study seem to propose that finding a mentor for women is almost like romantic courtship. It is not enough to find someone; you need to find THE one.

The BDM uncovered in my study suggest that issues with the underrepresentation of women in mentoring relationships may not be caused by lack of access to mentors per se. These findings should have an impact on the design and management of formal mentoring systems. Formal mentoring systems were developed in an effort to provide access to mentors to those employees believed to have trouble finding mentors on their own, that is, employees such as women and racial/ethnic minorities (Allen et al. 2006). Usually formal mentoring programs work by arbitrarily pairing senior and junior employees often without much thought or care into any other factor than to solve the problem of access. The findings of this study suggest that pairing protégé and mentor without consideration for who the female protégé and the mentor are, and therefore not considering their fit, does not provide fertile grounds in which mentorships can develop and grow. Particularly, given the BDM Need for Fit, formal mentoring systems aimed at female employees could potentially increase their chances of success by taking a “matchmaking” approach, forgetting about indiscriminatingly pairing protégés and mentors to focus on matching female protégés and mentors with similar interests and approaches to work.

The findings of my study also provide suggestions for the development of informal mentorships in STEM workplaces. Organizations that wish to foster and promote the development of informal mentorships need to be explicitly supportive toward the development of these relationships. My findings suggest that lack of support may be one of the reasons behind the under-mentoring of women. It might be particularly relevant for organizations to openly support and bless informal mentorships, especially among those who have recently entered the workplace (this in order to eradicate the barrier Demonstrating Capability). Organizations could also emphasise the importance of mentoring by actively limiting any suspicions that having a mentor could harm the career advancement of young employees.


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